Domine Deus Sabaoth

Contents

Introduction and Motivation

This paper was provoked by the following posting [slightly edited, as presented here] made to my email list:
"I am interested what you and others at this list think regarding the following biblical dilemma, with which I have been wrestling, off and on, since I was about sixteen years age.
How can one reconcile the belief that the whole of scripture is in all its parts inspired by God and inerrant (at least as far as the spiritual truths therein contained), with the fact that some of the books of the Old Testament are merely a bloody account of the profane history of the hebrew tribes and the brutal subjugation by them of the aboriginal peoples of Palestine, which brutalities are often ascribed to God Himself?
God supposedly ordered them to slaughter whole towns [e.g. Jericho -ed], to kill the women and children and animals, to rip the unborn babies out of their wombs, and then to rape some of the virgins, and offer the rest up to God.  I have asked several clergy this question, over the years.
  • A bishop in Rome told me in 1973 that God ordered no such things, that the Jews did these things themselves on their own initiative, ascribing them to God in order to justify their unjust actions. This would mean that the texts of those books have been altered by the scribes already a long time ago, which is plausible.
  • Here in Holland, I have asked four priests what they think:
    • one said simply to not read those passages,
    • the other three indignantly told me that I was an anti-semite, even for asking such a question!
I am less bothered by the acts of God done to save the Jews from Pharaoh and his armies (though what the Book of Exodus describes goes far beyond the duty of any God to help anyone, even the Jews!) than I am bothered by the totally senseless, utterly cruel and thoroughly unjustifiable deeds described in other books of the Old Testament:
  • the orders from God to wipe out the native peoples of Palestine, for example;
  • or the story of Israel's slaughtering all the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin and then Israel's kidnapping the virgins of another tribe so that the Benjaminite men would have wives and continue to reproduce [Jdgs 19-21].
  • Or the supposedly divine law to kill a witch [Ex 22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
  • Or the very unedifying story of the daughter in law disguised as a whore so that she might have sex with her father in law [Gen 38:6-26].
How can any of this be remotely inspired by a just, good and holy God, and portrayed as spiritually beneficious for Christians of today? The Church, by not reading most of these stories in Her Liturgy of the Mass, shows her disapproval or at least embarrassment at these Old Testament stories, in spite of Her teachings on inspiration and inerrancy.

I can understand why God would temporarily choose a particular people - the Jews - for a particular purpose. But that choice did not have to mean - and in my conviction could not have meant - that God wished the Jews to treat the non-Jews worse than beasts.

I think that the God described in some of the most primitive parts of the Old Testament is not the God which we believe in: the Holy Trinity, but rather, the tribal war god of the Hebrew tribes. The early Hebrews had more than one god, and worshipped their gods in much the same way as the non-Hebrews. Many traces are to be found of this in the primitive Old Testament writings: references to household gods [e.g. Gen 31:34], amulets and fertility ceremonies. In other texts, there is an amalgamated god.

It seems to me that there is in the Old Testament a gradual development from primitive worship of a devil like tribal war god to a God of All Nations, who will come in the flesh as the Messiah; but how can one consider some books, such as Joshua, to be religious as all, let alone inspired? I know of heathen writings which seem more divinely inspired. The later Old Testament books, such as the Wisdom books, are indeed inspired and useful: though Ecclesiastes is an odd one with its eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die like the animals! I sometimes read this to cheer myself up.

It is not my experience that the Jews of either biblical times or of today were or are any better or worse than other peoples on the face of the earth at the time in which they have lived. The discussion on the Old Testament is not at all about the Jews. That is what the three Dutch priests on three different occasions did not understand when I asked them what they thought about the Old Testament; and which is why they called me an 'anti-semite' just for daring to ask them! The discussion actually is about God: what he is truly like; and about the Church: what She actually believes regarding those books and passages in the Old Testament; and what minimum She demands of us to believe.

I doubt whether the Church has reflected upon the divinely ordered atrocities and the many divinely prescribed death sentences of the Old Testament at all; She has been too afraid to reflect upon them and therefore probably has no real view on them yet, which is why nobody can come up with a satisfying answer.

This is one of the biggest problems within the Church: to avoid an issue and to forbid one to ask questions is no solution, but serves only to postpone the problem and cause it to fester like a wound until the body begins to rot. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, example gratia, dedicates one sentence to the whole problem of the Old Testament:

"The Old Testament is divinely inspired... even though it does contain some imperfect and time bound things''.
What an understatement! Neither in my years of theological studies at a Pontifical University in Rome nor in my reading afterward have I ever came across any catholic theological investigation into the moral problems of the Old Testament and the repulsive portrayal of God and His chosen people in some of its books. Why can questions not be asked and things not be discussed? Is our faith so fragile and weakly founded?" [A Catholic Priest, "B", (October 2005)]
I think that the posting speaks for itself, without any need for comment from me. Another correspondent replied:
"It seems to me that the principal issue is how we are to define "inspiration." As you and many others recognize, if we give God very great and direct responsibility for all the words in the Hebrew Scriptures, and for the expressions of His will that led to frightful acts of bloodshed, then we end up with a highly unsatisfactory theology.

Was it God's will that the first-born of Egypt be slain on a single night, or that the entire Egyptian army and their horses be drowned in the Red Sea, or that the aboriginal peoples of Palestine be exterminated? No; but God allowed those stories to be written and preserved, because they somehow reflect the truth of God's love for Israel, and the importance of the covenant relationship.

Horrible stories such as the one about Jephthah's daughter [Judges 11], and, a favourite of mine, the one about the holy man of Judah [1 Kings 13], illustrate the awesome all-powerful holiness of God, and the reverence that human beings must feel for it; but they should not be interpreted as saying positively that God desired and commanded these things to be done.

Unfortunately, throughout history we have tended to remain on the surface, and our wrong understanding of what the will of God is has led to all sorts of terrible consequences. The Catholic Church in its wisdom is selective in what passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to include in its liturgy; so for the most part, in the Mass and the Office, we do not stumble on very many corpses. For the most part; we do not suppress Exodus, for example.

I am sorry that you are struggling with problems of canonicity. By all means appeal to those who believe that Councils of bishops have set all this straight, if it helps you; but I recommend a more historical approach, which rejoices in all the rich literature that is available to us, and which  mourns the suppression or loss of so much that we cannot see. I remind you of the practice of the authors of the New Testament: when they wanted to quote from the Old Testament, they most certainly did not restrict themselves to the Septuagint. They used whatever Greek version they found convenient to their purpose, including perhaps versions of their own out of Aramaic." [A Catholic layman, "MS", (October 2005)]

Some incorrect or inadequate solutions

The gravity of the dilemma expressed here has led various people to espouse extreme solutions. I shall next review and criticize the main ones with which I am familiar.

Gnosticism

There was a strand of Gnosticism which held that the creator god of the Hebrew Scriptures was not at all the same as the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The latter is the true supreme God; the former is an incompetent underling (the demiurge), who messed things up by creating matter. In this tradition, the serpent of Genesis, is a hero who wishes to save humanity from the mess that the demiurge created. and the whole of the Old Testament is suspect and can at best only be interpreted on the basis of a secret (arcane) and hidden (apocryphal) knowledge (gnosis) that is not at all apparent either from the text or the living tradition (of the Hebrew people) that gave rise to it.

The basic problem with this doctrine is that it makes out that all creation is at root a mistake, that matter (and hence the body and sex is intrinsically evil) and that (wo)man is pretty much irredeemable.

The creed of Toledo [Dz 28] anathematizes those who say there is one god of the Old Testament and another of the New. This doctrine is also intentionally excluded by the Nicene Creed:

"We believe in One God, maker of Heaven and Earth; of all that is, visible and invisible."
In 1053 pope St Leo IX required Peter of Antioch to profess the same faith in one divine author of Old and New Testaments [Dz 348]. Moreover, pope Clement VI makes it clear in his letter to the Catholicos of Armenia that the books themselves and not merely the dispensations are at issue:
"We ask if you believed and now believe that the New Testament and Old Testament in all the books which the authority of the Roman Church has handed down to us contain unquestionable truth throughout". [Dz 570r]
The Oecumenical Councils of Florence [Dz 706], Trent [Dz 783] and the Vatican all strongly affirm the idea that there is one God jointly of both the Old and New Testament.

Marcionism

This was a more overtly Christian version of the same viewpoint. Marcion, in the mid second Century, proposed that Christians should accept as scripture only Paul's letters, and his own de-Judaized form of the Gospel according to Luke.
"Marcion went much further in his criticism of the Old Testament than I would dream of going. He scrapped it completely, even the 'good parts'. Even the fear of being considered a marcionite does not dampen the voice within me that is asking the questions. Personally - if this were merely a matter of taste and choice - I too would scrap the whole Old Testament; if that were the only way to get rid of the most offensive parts of it. The Church's teaching that the whole Old Testament (Septuagint version) is (in some sense) divinely inspired, forces us to look for a less simple answer.

Unlike Marcion, I - and most Christians, I suspect - have no big problems with the New Testament. The Gospels - including the infancy narratives - are for me historically and spiritually true (the four Gospels are per se the life story of Our Lord in the flesh, and are therefore historical, but more than historical, as they give us a history that transcends facts and ordinary human conditions. The few factual discrepancies between the Four Gospels reinforce the historical value, I find, rather than detract. The supernatural details are no mere embellishments, but belong to the essence of the narrative of Our Lord's life, teaching, wonders, works, self-sacrifice and rising from the dead. Religion without the supernatural is pointless.) But that is my view - I do not know what the Church demands of us to confess as regards the historicity of the Gospels." [My original Priestly Correspondent, "B", (October 2005)]

Marcionism is open to more or less the same criticism and condemnation as Gnosticism.

Dehebraicism

This is, perhaps, the conventional Catholic view. Basically, it is the idea that Christianity and Judaism are more or less totally different religions. The role of Judaism being only to prepare the way for Christianity, the advent of which discontinuously replaced a "shadow belief" with "the true substance of The Faith". On this view, the Jewish Scriptures exist only to foreshadow the New Testament, and the Old Testament should always and only be interpreted in the light of the New. Many great theologians, including my hero Origen, held to this position. It is well expressed in subsequent postings from "B", "MS" and "AC":
"It seems to me that the Old Testament is the whole literary production of the early Hebrew people; which their priests, being the natural keepers of  the memory of the people, wished to preserve for posterity. That collection of writings, both sacred and profane, eventually acquired an aura of holiness, simply because it had become so old and so familiar.

The Christian Church inherited the Old Testament in toto in its Greek version, and considered the whole collection indiscriminately to be sacred, because it had been used, venerated and quoted by Our Lord and His Apostles. Thus we got stuck with both the good and the less good, the useful and the less useful, the inspiring and the repulsive aspects of the Old Testament. Those Christians who actually read the Old Testament, have been looking for an explanation ever since.

Historicity is the least of the problems regarding the Old Testament. Its moral dilemmas are far more serious to me, and to sincere seekers of the Truth, such as Simone Weil in the book 'Letter to a religious', in which this young jewish philosopher expresses her desire to be baptized a Catholic, but cannot bring herself to accept the Old Testament!

I first read a copy of the Bible in the monastery, when I was about sixteen or seventeen. Until then, I had only seen passages of the Holy Scriptures in prayer books and in the Missal. I was shocked to read in Leviticus that a man who sleeps with another man should be outcast from society. Since I read the Bible from the beginning, I quickly came across even worse sounding words in my reading. This left a lasting impression upon me and put me off biblical studies more or less up till now. I have always leaned towards Dogmatics and Liturgy and Church History, and shunned biblical studies. I am now rereading the Old Testament, to try to see it in another light.

However, I must confess, that the conversations between Moses and God in Exodus sound frighteningly like the words of a child who is trying to calm his somewhat confused, capricious, easily offended, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous alcoholic parent. This rereading of the Old Testament is not shedding any positive light upon my questions.

For me the New Testament is the Holy Book of Christians per se, whilst the Old Testament is more or less the background information which we can consult in order to put the prophesied Coming of Our Lord, His life and cultural/religious reference in its proper context and understand it more fully. For ours is an incarnated God, and an incarnated religion. The proper use of the Scriptures, as I see it, is to reverentially listen to the relevant bits of it that are read or sung during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office.

My faith as a Catholic does not depend directly upon the scriptures at all, let alone the Old Testament. My belief in God depends upon the natural revelation in nature and in my conscience. The further supernatural truths which God has wished to reveal about Himself: the Trinity; the Incarnation; the Resurrection; His Virgin Mother; His Church; the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Presence, these depend upon the Divine Revelation as contained in the Living Holy Tradition, of which the Liturgy is the privileged place of expression, and the Holy Scriptures acquire their value and meaning within the context of the Liturgy and the Tradition which it celebrates.

This is how see it, and this is why I write that my faith does not depend directly and solely upon Scripture and the problems which we are now discussing. Which means answers of any kind, or a lack of answers, regarding the Old Testament, would not at all negatively affect my Catholic faith, but honest and sincere answers could well have a positive effect." ["B" (October 2005)]

 

"It is worth noting that we Christians have traditionally, treated the Old Testament always as ancillary to the Christian revelation. The first reading in today's Novus Ordo Lectionary is an excellent example. Exodus 22:20-26 is from the long and complex legal code that give the Torah its name. To Jews, this is the most important part of the Hebrew Scriptures, the part that they spend the most time reading and discussing. To us, it is mostly irrelevant, not to say boring, and we rarely look at it, privileging much more the narrative portions of Torah, and the Prophets (including the historical books and the writing prophets) and the Writings (especially Psalms and the Wisdom literature). As is regularly the case, this passage from Exodus has apparently been chosen to give something of an Old Testament background to the Gospel lesson.

On the other hand, I think we never hear at Mass Exodus 22:17-19, which is about three classes of people who must be put to death (witches, people who have sex with animals, and people who offer sacrifices to other gods); or  Exodus 22:27-29, which is about offering the first-born children to God, and the first-born of one's cows and sheep." ["MS" (October 2005)]

"We have not to forget that the veil of the Temple was torn apart at the moment of Christ's death. The Old Testament was no more and the People of God are the baptised of the Church. The old laws no longer have any validity. We Christians eat pork and seafood - all the things that were purified by God (cf. St. Peter's vision of the sheet containing "impure" animals for eating and the Angel's command to kill and eat). Likewise, the old laws of the Torah are abrogated.

I see the Old Testament is its allegorical and symbolic meaning - a preparation for the Incarnation of Christ and the Redemption. The Holy Trinity is a God of love and the fulness of Revelation, for which the people of the Old Testament were only prepared progressively. I have read the Bible entirely cover-to-cover just once - I found much of the Pentateuch (apart from Genesis and Exodus - with the Paschal theme) incredibly boring. What is genuinely spiritual are the Prophets, the Wisdom Books and the Psalms - that is something else, which have been sanctified by Christ as were the old pagan mystery religions. I love the beautifully erotic Song of Solomon.

For me, the beauty of Christianity is that it is not merely a "Jewish heresy", but a recapitulation of the whole of human experience, progress and aspiration, expressed in Paganism and Judaism alike. The dogma of the Trinity "moderates" the stark monotheism of Judaism and Islam, and gives us entirely different archetypes. Christianity admits eroticism in the spiritual life, but Islam and Judaism expect you to love (or rather serve or submit to) God for absolutely nothing in return, as do many deformed versions of Christianity." [A second Clerical Correspondant "AC" (October 2005)]

As I have made clear elsewhere, I largely repudiate this position. While I accept that "MS" and "AC" are largely correct in implying that for Catholics, the detailed regulations of the Mosaic Law are almost entirely defunct; I must admit to finding the overall effect and impact of the Liturgical Rubrics of Leviticus inspiring. Moreover it must not be forgotten that neither the Ten Commandments nor the foundational laws to "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbour" have been "abrogated"! While not denying that "B" is right to raise the problem that he does, neither claiming that it is at all easy to answer; nevertheless, for me:
  • The Catholic Religion is a developmental continuation of the Judaic Tradition, not a replacement for it.
  • The New Testament should be read in the light of the Old Testament just as much - if not more than - the Old should be read in the light of the New.
  • Most "New Testament ideas" are in fact "Old Testament ideas" repackaged, for example "Love your neighbour as yourself" [Lev 19:18,33].
  • Our Blessed Lord based his preaching on Old Testament themes and images.
  • For example:
    ".... while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, 'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water"'." [Jn 7:37-38]

    compare:

    "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." [Is 55:1]

    and also:

    "A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon." [Song 4:12-15]

    Another example:
    "Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light". [Mat 11:28-30] 

    compare :
    "Come close to me, you uninstructed .... I have opened my mouth, and spoken: 'Buy her without money, put your necks under her yolk, and let your souls receive instruction; she is not far to seek.' See for yourselves, how slight my efforts have been to win so much peace." [Sir 51:23-30  NB this passage is not present in all manuscripts of Sirach!]
     

  • Much of the Church's liturgical practice and ethical teaching originates in the Old Testament.
  • Leviticus is the best justification for the elaboration of Catholic Ritual.
  • The psalms and Old Testament canticles are central to the Church's worship, both in the Office and the Mass.
  • Some of the most profound insights of Scripture are to be found in the Torah, see below.
  • Many hugely inspiring examples of holiness and faithfulness are to be found in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah to mention just a few personal heroes.
  • "Let's not forget that the New Testament is the maturity of the Old Testament. Just as little as we are going to disregard the child in us now that we are mature, we equally can't disregard the child of the Old Testament, now that we have the adult of the New. The New Testament does not abrogate the Old Testament cultic code, but gives it its fullest possible meaning. It's all about book (the Tanach) versus person (Jesus Christ). Different paradigms, but the same phenomenon: God's self-revelation to humans." [A third Clerical Correspondent: "H" (October 2005)]

    Spiritualization

    The former position can give rise to the idea that the Old Testament has to be "sanitized" in some manner; the "nasty bits" being radically re-interpreted, almost as if they never meant what they manifestly did mean to their writers and first readers. The great theologian Origen was especially keen to ignore the plain meaning of Old Testament texts and to concoct mystical significances for them, whether or not the literal meaning was problematic or not. For Origen, God's inspiration of the text was only operative when it was read within the Church by those with spiritual maturity and insight. The Word of God was only present in the text for those able to rightly discern it.

    I believe that passages from either Testament can have secondary and sometimes spiritual/mystical meanings which may not have been either intended or apparent to their human authors, though intended by God. For example, the deepest significance of the visit of the three Angels to Abraham and of the encounter of Moses with God in the Burning Bush was - I am sure - not realized by the author-editor(s) of Genesis and Exodus. Nevertheless, I think that it is wrong simply to discount the plain meaning of any Scriptural text. It seems to me that to do so is to do violence to The Word of God - the core document of Sacred Apostolic Tradition.

    My Priestly Correspondent later enquired:

    "Is the above supposed to connect to the the immediately preceding long citation from me? I hope not, because the whole point of my question is that the obvious, literal and primary meaning of many Old Testament passages are offensive and need to be taken seriously, not sterilized, spiritualized away, or analogized away alla Origen. I do, of course, admit to several co-existing meanings, but not in order to pretend that the originally meant meaning be conveniently discounted." ["B" (October 2005)]
    To which I respond that no such thought occurred to me! I said "can give rise" not "will give rise". Of course, "B" has already said that he would willingly excise those offensive passages (or even the Old Testament entire!), if this was an option open to him.

    Fundamentalism

    This is easy to understand and express. It is the idea that whatever the Bible says should always be taken at face value. Hence, as the Bible says that God on occasion commanded the Israelites to kill innocent non-combatants, then one must accept that He did so and one must further believe that this was a just and good thing to do; simply because God commanded it. The basic problem with this "solution" is manifest: it makes God out to be an arbitrary tyrant.

    The following is a conflation of responses to our question from three Fundamentalist-Evangellical web sites. I think that the text I present is pretty representative of such thought.

    Certain accounts within the Old Testament depict God not as holy, kind, good, and merciful, but instead as unjust, mean, vengeful and unforgiving.. It would seem, then, that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, and quite distinct from the God of the New Testament.
    The Extermination of the Canaanites
    When the Israelites were commissioned to take the land of Canaan, God instructed them to smite completely the native peoples, and to show no mercy upon them. In fact, He is represented as having ordered the destruction of entire cities, such as Jericho, just to allow the Jews to have a homeland in the Middle East. How can this be reconciled with the goodness of God?
    Surely a loving God could not command such a genocide.
    Several things must be taken into consideration.
    • This argument is based on the unstated assumption that the people whom God ordered destroyed were morally equivalent to the Jews who replaced them. However, this is what the Bible says about the people who were destroyed: "It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." [Deut 9:5]
    • It must be noted that the Lord had been very patient with these immoral pagan tribes for a long time. When Abraham first entered Canaan, God promised that it would someday belong to his seed, but said that it could not yet be theirs because "the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full" [Gen 15:16].
    • The Canaanite religion was a brutal system that may have involved human sacrifice and even infanticide.
    • The destruction of these wicked people was for the moral preservation of the nation of Israel.
    • God has the right to render judgement upon evil at any time. No one has the right to criticize the moral activity of God unless he can establish and defend some genuine moral standard apart from God: and this no unbeliever can do!
    The Biblical Imprecations
    The "imprecatory" sections of the Scriptures are those that contain prayers or songs for vengeance upon enemies, or which end in triumphant praise at their destruction. How is it that such expressions come to be part of divine revelation? These writings should not be viewed as outbursts of vindictiveness characteristic of an inferior moral code. It is wrong to take a low view of texts that were placed in the divine record for a purpose. These prayers and songs express a zeal for God's cause; a willingness to leave vengeance in His hands; and acknowledge that punishment for sin is a part of the divine order.
    • The enemies of Israel were the enemies of Israel's God.
    • Israel's defeat was a reproach to His Name.
    • The cause at stake was not merely the existence of a nation, but the cause of divine truth and righteousness.
    Unethical Actions by God
    The Bible sometimes represents God as acting in ways that seem to be unethical. For example:
    • concerning Pharaoh, God said: "I will harden his heart" [Ex 4:21];
    • God says, apparently of the Mosaic Law: "I gave them also statutes that were not good" [Ezk 20:25]!
    • and Jeremiah said: "Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people" [Jer 4:10].
    In order to correctly interpret such passages, one must be aware of certain idiomatic traits of Biblical Hebrew. Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not just the doing of a thing, but the granting of permission by an agent for a thing to be done; which the agent is (mis)represented as doing. Hence, sometimes the Bible uses figurative terminology, representing God as directly causing some action or effect, when in reality He did not do so.

    With reference to the examples cited above:

    • Pharaoh hardened his own heart, by yielding to the enchantments of his magicians and refusing to listen to the testimony of  Moses.
    • When Ezekiel says that God gave statutes that were not good, he means no more than that when stubborn people determined that they did not want to abide by true justice, God permitted them to follow the wicked statutes of the pagan nations around them.
    • When Jeremiah suggested that God deceived the people of Israel, he meant only that the Lord allowed them to follow their own paths of self deceit.
    Those who respect the Bible as the Word of God must realize that though certain passages of Scripture are difficult to understand, there is always an explanation to be had. Many of the answers can be discovered by means of patient and thorough research; and even where difficulties remain, we must not charge God with error.

    God in fact is not different from one Testament to another. God's wrath and love are revealed equally in both Testaments. Throughout the Old Testament we see God dealing with Israel in much the same way as a loving father deals with an erring child. This is how we later see God dealing with Christians 

    "For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." [Heb 12:6]
    Throughout the Old Testament, we see God's judgement and wrath poured out on unrepentant sinners. Likewise in the New Testament we see that the wrath of God is still 
    “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” [Rom 1:18]
    Even a quick reading of the New Testament makes it evident that Jesus talks more about Hell than He does Heaven. Throughout the Bible we see God lovingly and merciful calling people into a special relationship with Himself, not because they deserve it but because He is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth; yet we also see a holy and righteous God Who is the judge of all those who disobey His word and refuse to worship Him.
    While I think that there is some truth in the above, it is mixed in with a lot of error!

    Some first attempts at an answer

    My third clerical correspondent wrote, addressing "B":
    "I battle, like you, to understand this. I belong to a Calvinist-Reformed discussion group, and the moderator and I have had a few interesting discussions about hell and why I find it unpalatable to my sense of grace and mercy to believe in a "pizza oven" where God fries little people like you and me for not wanting to play with Him anymore.

    This is a tough one, and I probably have more questions than answers; but one thing I know is this: our human perception of God taints and colours God. I think a whole lot of really 'primitive' thinking by our Israelite ancestors in the faith is the source of these odd descriptions of God.  I simply cannot reconcile my understanding and experience of God with a psychopathic tyrant who blows fire and smoke from his nostrils.

    What I think we need to learn from this is that we need to allow God to reveal Himself to us as He is, and not as We are. This is a fundamental perceptual principle:
    We see as we are, and to change how we see, we need to change who we are.
    In Christ, we have been transformed into His likeness, but the image is still lacking: good old Orthodox theology here! I think we as fathers though we are evil (to use Jesus' words) know how to give good gifts to our children because we empathize with them. Hence we should not be surprised that God, too, knows this.

    I so identify with what you are writing, you have no idea, but let's not approach the problem with the idea of validating or invalidating the Canon. This is not right. We have to engage with matters such as these by keeping true to our Apostolic Faith. The Canon of the Old Testament is inspired and is now part of our written Paradosis [= Tradition - ed]. God speaks to us through it.

    There must not be the slightest doubt in our minds and hearts about this, or else we loose connection with the Book and its Tradition.
    Our point of departure must be the perspective of faith, or else we can just as well discuss the New York Times instead.
    We see, in the pages of the Tanach [= the Hebrew Bible - ed], many series of developments and growth in understanding of the depositum fidei. Take for example the almost 'primitive' use of the legendary and mysterious 'ephod' and 'urim and thummim' in the priestly office. By the end of the monarchy (certainly by the end of the post-exilic period) the ephod (and probably also the urim and thummim) were classified with the teraphim (household gods [e.g. Gen 33:34]) and considered to be less than acceptable for religious use. So, too, the early priestly function of providing torah (oral instruction) to the people of God. Initially a priestly prerogative, later disconnected from the Priesthood and administered by the Scribes and Teachers of the Law, which also included lay people!
    Things [seem to -ed] change as our human capacity allows us to better understand.
    No wonder Jesus pointed out to the Apostles that even they could not bear to hear all there is to know, but that in the age of the Paraclete, the revelation would become greater [John 16:12-15].

    Although I honestly have few answers for you, I have learned to marvel at how our own limitations are projected onto God (the psychoanalyst in me, I confess!), and how easily we assume that God is such and such because we are such and such. I think a society's perception of God tells us who they were, and not who God is. God is, by nature, unchangeable.

    God needs no metamorphosis, we do.
    I so love the words of Saint Paul in this regard:
    "As it is, to this day, whenever Moses is read, their hearts are covered with a veil, and this veil will not be taken away till they turn to the Lord .... and all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory" [2 Cor. 3:15-18]
    It is in Jesus Christ alone that the transformation of the human soul takes place and that a full and complete unveiling of the vagueness and uncertainties of the past dispensations is experienced. Our New Testament perspective of grace is the point of departure we should use when reading the Old Testament, or else we, like the Jews, read with our hearts "covered with a veil".
    ["H" (October 2005)]
    I am sure that a lot of what is going on in the Hebrew Bible's account of God is in fact an account of (Wo)Man's developing understanding of God. For this reason, it is important that we keep tight hold of the whole account so that we remember how far we have come and may get an impression thereby of how much further we may yet have to go. For example, I think it is unwise to remove all the sexist language from the Bible. Not because I approve of the sexist attitudes of various Biblical writers, or because I think that they reflect the Mind of God: no, but because this flawed language remains a powerful witness to us that the whole of the language of Sacred Scripture is human language - with all the glories and poetries and inadequacies that this means.  If St Paul could have culturally (ill-)conditioned ideas about women, then he could have similarly inadequate ideas about slaves or who knows what/who else; and so could we!

    Setting the Context

    It is vital to remind ourselves of the context of our question. Unlike my correspondent "B", I find the Torah (otherwise known as the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses) to be generally inspiring and profound documents. I list below a few of the highlights:
    • God the Creator:
      • The Cosmos is created from nothing by an act of Divine Intellect [Gen 1],
        • by a separation of "positive from "negative" [Gen 1:4].
      • The Spirit of God is intimate with matter [Gen 1:2].
        • Hence, there is no "demiurge".
        • Hence also, matter is not intrinsically evil.
      • God is being-in-itself [Ex 3:13-15].
      • WoMankind is created in God's Image [Gen 1:26-27].
      • Gender and the Divine invitation to reproduce [Gen 1:27] pre-dates the fall.
        • Hence sex is intrinsically wholesome.
      • WoMen are not intended to be lonely [Gen 2:18-24], but to have companions and live in community.
    • God the Redeemer, Friend and Lover of WoMankind:
      • God still cares intimately for WoMankind, even after they have sinned [Gen 3:21].
      • God is willing to covenant and bind Himself to WoMankind [Gen 9:8-17; 15:17-20; 17:1-14 Ex 24].
      • God wants to dwell among the community of His people [Ex 29:38-46].
      • God is implacably opposed to human sacrifice [Gen 22:12  but cf  Jdgs 11:29-40 Ezk 20:26  Ex 22:28-29].
      • God is a powerful deliverer and redeemer [Ex 12, 15:11-13, 18:10-12].
      • With God's help, it is entirely possible to defeat sin and to be a good person [Gen 4:6-7].
      • It is possible to become a friend of God [Gen 5:21-24, Ex 33:11,18-34:9].
      • It is proper to argue [Gen 18:22-33] and fight [Gen 32:24-32] with God.
    • God the Just Judge
      • The Ten Commandments [Ex 20:1-17].
      • Strangers and foreigners should be treated fairly and with consideration [Ex 22:21-24].
      • Revenge is limited to like for like [Ex 21:24 Lev 24:20 Deut 19:16-21].
      • Love your neighbour as yourself, whether (s)he be Jew or Gentile [Lev 19:18,33].
    I believe that the Torah is not to be taken in a straight-forward way, as a set of stories that are clearly presented and have definite interpretations. Sometimes this is obvious (as in Jacb wrestling with "the man") and often a Torah story raises a huge number of questions in a quite unavoidable manner. I believe that the real purpose of the Torah is to do this - to make us ask questions by posing us with challenges. Often it presents us with an "inadequate" view of God precisely to elicit from us a reaction along the lines of "but that can't be triue - God would never have done that!". This causes us to discover and notice that we have a higher view of God within us than that which is (supposedly) recommended to us by the Torah. It was in this way that the Jews developed the highest moral view of God ever acheived by any sociological group - only Plato (an isolated individual) had, to my knowledge. a comparable conviction of  "Heaven's absolute commitment objective justice". The Jews developed this doctrine of God (which some Christians have subsequently renaged on) out of their experience of "wrestling with God" in the study of the Torah. The name Israel (which is how Jacob came to be called after his nocturnal grapplings with an anonymous man) means "He who wrestles with God".

    One should always bare in mind that the Torah is a conflation of various documents, each of which had its origin in a different epoch and historical context. (Perhaps they can all be traced back in some way to Moses - as the Bible Commission would have had us believe - perhaps not; I don't see that this matters. They are all authentic expressions of the Living Tradition of the Hebrew People of God.) Hence one tends to find inconsistencies in the plot and one shouldn't pay too much attention to these. They are not the point! What is important is not what actually happened historically (though this may be relevant and isn't entirely to be dismisssed - sometimes it is vital that SOMETHING actually happened or else the story looses its very reason for being told!) but the effect that the story is supposed to have on the reader and student of the Torah.

    The Torah is a compliation of "educational resources" that the Rabbis developed and used to get across spiritual, ethical and philosophical lessons. I know that I find the Torah much more powerful and personally challenging if approached in this way - which I suspect is a more authentically Jewish way than is typical among Christians.

    Defining the Problem

    Before proceeding to attempt to formulate an answer to the problem at hand, it is vital to clarify what exactly the problem is.
    • God is sometimes represented as:
      • approving,
      • commanding, or
      • directly bringing about

      • actions that seem to be unjust, duplicitous or wicked.
    • Examples of God appearing (sometimes implicitly) to approve of wickedness include:
      • God's acceptance of Jacob, after he had tricked his elder brother Esau out of his birthright [Gen 27-28].
      • The story of the young widow "Tamar" who disguised herself as a whore so that she might have sex with her father in law, "Judah", who was refusing to let her marry his youngest son, "Shelah", her brother-in-law who should have been constrained to give her sons so that the name of her late husband, "Er", would be preserved [Gen 38:6-26].
      • Moses' killing of the Egyptian overseer [Ex 2:1-5].
      • God's toleration of slavery and the abuse of slaves [Ex 21:20-21].
      • The duplicitous murder of Sisera, the general of a Canaanite army with a tent peg [Jdgs 4,5] by Jael in the days of Deborah the prophetess and ruling Judge of Israel.
      • The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter [Jdgs 11:29-40].
    • Examples of the commanding of apparent wickedness include:
      • Abraham was apparentl;y ordered to cast out his concubine Hagar, and first born son Ishmael, in favour of Sarah and Isaac [Gen 21].
      • Abraham was apparently ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen 22] - see below for a detailed commentary.
      • God's injunction to execute all witches and mediums [Ex 22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
      • The Hebrews were ordered to wipe out the native peoples of Palestine, many cities were to be put "under the ban" [Lev 26:7-8 Num 31:1-21  Deut 7:1-5; 20:10-18 Josh 7:16,18-21,25;8:1-2,7-8,19,22-29;10:28-43; 11:14-15].
      • The story of Israel's slaughtering all of the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin in revenge for the murder of a Levite's concubine and then Israel's kidnapping hebrew virgins from other tribes so that the few Benjaminite men remaining might have wives and so continue their tribe [Jdgs 19-21].
    • Examples of directly bringing about wickedness include:
      • The Flood [Gen 6-8]. However, this may have been a natural disaster and only attributed to God's initiative.
      • The destruction of Sodom and Gomorra and the death of the wife of Lot [Gen 19]. Once more, the destruction of the cities of the planes may have been some kind of natural disaster, rather than an "Act of God" and the story of the salinification of Lot's wife be nothing more than a fable.
      • God's abortive murder of  Moses [Ex 4:24]. This is a very mysterious and garbled incident.
      • The plagues of Egypt, especially the Death of the Firstborn [Ex 6:28-12:32].
      • The drowning of Pharaoh's army [Ex 14:23-28]. It should be born in mind that this was a "them or us" situation.
      • God's commitment to wipe out the primitive populations of Palestine, including the injunction to put many cities "under the ban" [Ex 23:23,27-30  Num 21:2-3,31-35 Deut 17-24; 11:23-25; 12:29; 20:1-4  Josh 10:10-11; 11:6-9,30].
      • God's anger towards the Hebrews after Aaron had set up the Golden Calf for them to worship [Ex 32:1-14,35 Deut 9:13-14,19,25].
      • The death of  two sons of Aaron [Lev 10:1-3].
      • The death of Korah and his men [Num 16].
      • The fiery serpents [Num 21:6-9].
      • Harsh threats to punish disobedience viciously [Deut 28:15-68; 31:16-21; 32:15-43].
      • The death of one prophet (who was killed by a lion) for having been deceived another one [1 Kgs 13].
      • God gave the Hebrews "statutes that were not good" [Ezk 20:25], commanding them to commit infanticide of their own firstborn [Ezk 20:26, cf Ex 22:29, Lev 18:21].
    The following observations must be made immediately:
    • Many of these incidents are reported in a partial and sometimes clearly garbled manner.
    • The fact that the writer may seem to approve of something should not be taken as meaning that God certainly does.
    • "God's approval" is sometimes only implicit or tacit; toleration might be a better word to use than approval.
    • The fact that the text claims that something was explicitly commanded or approved by God should not be taken as a definitive.
      • The distinction between "The priests or prophet commanded it in the name of God" and "God commanded it to be done by the words of his priests or prophet" was perhaps too subtle for the ancient Hebrews.
      • Sometimes events are ascribed to God in a quite arbitrary manner, see for example [Num 11:1-2;33-34].
        • Given the rest of this chapter, it is pretty obvious that the phrase:
          • "the anger of the Lord was kindled, and the Lord smote the people"
        • is a figure of speech meaning:
          • "something very unpleasant happened to the people".
        • I say this because
          • no pretext whatsoever is given to explain "God's anger" on the second occasion
          • and between the two incidents of "God's anger" there is a clear example of God's gracious kindness, when He is presented as responding superabundantly to complaints and moans from the Hebrews that they were fed-up of eating manna and wanted fruit and meat and green vegetables instead [Num 11:4-6;10-11;18-20;31-32]!
    Nevertheless, a number of serious issues remain to be dealt with. Later on in this paper, I will attempt to do so, but first it is appropriate to discuss how the canon of Scripture was established, and what is meant by Scriptural Inspiration and Inerrancy.

    How was the canon of Scripture established?

    The following is a debate reported [October (2005)] between my corespondent "H" and a Calvinist antagonist "C".
    [C] "What I am saying is that the canon existed as an objective entity given by God from the moment each canonical document was penned. The Spirit working in each canonical author imbued the text with the necessary authority, and that same Spirit worked through the text to impress that authority on any reader of the text: for one reading in faith, this results in acceptance of its authority, and for one reading in disbelief, a condemnation from on high. In either case, the authority of the text is affirmed and confirmed by the Spirit speaking through the text. This means that the locus of authority in determining or defining the canon is not the church, but the Spirit."

    [H] "You isolate the Spirit as if He were apart from the Church, and as if the Church were merely accidental or even irrelevant and unimportant to the work of the Spirit in defining the Canon. This is not the Biblical teaching. Jesus promised to send to the Church “another Paraclete” (advocate, intercessor, counsellor, support), 'the Spirit of truth' [Jn 14:16] who will be 'with' the Church, 'in' the Church [Jn 14:17], and 'on' the Church [Acts 1:8].  In fact, the Spirit will also flow 'from' the Church [Jn 7:38-39]. The Spirit is in the Church, and guides her into all truth [Jn 16:12-15].

    It is in and with and through the Church that the Spirit speaks.

    To illustrate:  the Canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was finally settled by Athanasius in the East in 367 AD, and at the Council of Rome in 382 AD, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same Canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD and at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. In 405 AD Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the Canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419 AD, reaffirmed the Canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to 'confirm this Canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.' All of these Canons were identical to the modern Catholic-Orthodox Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals. This, surely, is a demonstration of the Church's understanding of herself as vessel of the Spirit, and the channel through which the Spirit speaks, and not as an obstacle or obsolete, accidental bystander. The Canon was recognized under the guidance of the same Spirit who inspired the Canonical writings."

    [C] "In a way parallel to the private recognition of the believer that the Gospel is true, so the church came to recognize, through the working of the Spirit through the word, which documents were canonical and which were not."

    [H]  "There was no canon of Sacred Scripture in the early Church. There was no Bible apart from the Septuagint  Old Testament text. Of all the 'versions' of the Old Testament, this certainly takes first place; since it is based on a pre-Masoretic Hebrew text. When the Christians started citing not only Greek Epistles from her Apostles, but also the Greek Old Testament, many Jews abandoned that text in favour of the Hebrew version then current.

    The Bible is the Book of the Church; She is not the Church of the Book. Thus the Church has a Book and a Teacher: the Spirit in the Church. It was the Church, guided by the authority of the Spirit of Truth, which discerned which books were inspired by God. The Church did not decide what the canon was going to be; she proclaimed what the canon already objectively was. We agree on this.

    Interesting discussion can be had over the 'protocanonicals' and the 'deutoerocanonicals' of the New Testament, and how the Church's Sacred Magisterium operated in this regard. What I don't understand is what you mean by "the working of the Spirit through the word". Shouldn't it be: "the working of the Spirit through the Church"? Where does "The Word" declare the canon of "The Word"?

    [C] "I believe that the great Oecumenical councils can only claim the revelation of the Spirit derivatively through the word of God, but that nonetheless their conclusions were thoroughly in accord with the witness of the Scriptures."

    [H] "Where do the Scriptures, then, define the canon?  If Councils only function 'in accord with the witness of Scriptures'", then where do the Scriptures witness to the content of canon? You are ignoring how the Councils saw themselves. They clearly understood the Church to be 'in the Spirit' when 'in Council'. How can you accept as binding the Council's definition of the New Testament Canon, and yet dismiss its definition of the Old Testament Canon? Why, for the latter, do you prefer to accept the decision of a Synod of Rabbinical Jews as authoritative? We both know how complex a discussion of Canonics can get, but a simple progression from primitive oral Paradosis is probably as follows:

    1. a pattern of teaching [Rom. 6:17],
    2. traditions [2 Thes. 2:15],
    3. a pattern of sound teaching [2 Tim. 1:13],
    4. a deposit [2 Tim. 1:12],
    5. a recognized canon.
    Why do you assume that once the oral Paradosis or Tradition gets to the "canonical stage", that the process of Paradosis itself ceases? The Fathers know nothing of this!

    St  Francis de Sales wrote an article: 'The Protestant violation of Holy Scripture', [Burns and Oats: London, (1886 AD)]. As an introduction paragraph he wrote: 

    'I well know, thank God, that Tradition was before all Scripture, since a good part of Scripture itself is only Tradition reduced to writing, with an infallible assistance of the Holy Spirit. But, since the authority of Scripture is more easily received by the reformers than that of Tradition, I begin with the former in order to get a better entrance for my argument.'"
    [C] "The word of God needs no external authority to confirm its truth, only the Spirit speaking through the word."

    [H] "You are not reflecting the Tradition of the Fathers in your thinking. Whose Tradition are you reflecting, then?  The Spirit also speaks through His Church. It is from Holy Spirit and from the teaching of the Holy Apostles, and their successors that we too come to 'the knowledge of the truth' and to 'true religion' [Tit. 1:1]. This is why the decisions that are made when the Apostles (or Bishops) gather in Council are endorsed by the Holy Spirit [Acts 15:28], because it is in this manner that the Church exercises her witness, with the Holy Spirit [Acts 5:32], of the truth that is in Jesus Christ. Jesus promised to send the Church 'another paraclete, the Spirit of truth' [Jn 14:16].

    Any Bishop will tell you that individual opinions are relative in the absence of Magisterial precedent. We are all free to think as we please, as part of the vox populi in the Church, but when we put it all on the table and the Church makes a definitive Magisterial statement, then individual opinions are only indicative. Even if all the Fathers agreed in their writings on some subject, these would be indicative only of their own private views if the Church's Magisterium declared the opposite!

    Each protestant group has its own Paradosis that directs its interpretation of Scripture and its practice, and it is this unacknowledged 'tradition' that distinguishes each group from all others.

    It is true that Jerome, and a few other isolated writers, did not accept most of the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. However, Jerome was persuaded, against his original inclination, to include the deuterocanon in his Vulgate edition of the Scriptures. This is testimony to the fact that the books were commonly accepted and were expected to be included in any edition of the scriptures. Furthermore, in his later years Jerome accepted certain deuterocanonical parts of the Bible. In his reply to Rufinus, he arduously defended the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel even though the Jews of his day did not. He wrote:

    'What sin have I committed if I followed the judgement of the Churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children, and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I was not relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are wont to make against us' [Against Rufinus 11:33].
    Thus Jerome acknowledged the principle by which the canon was settled: the judgement of the Churches. Other Fathers that Protestants cite as objecting to the deuterocanon, such as Athanasius and Origen, also accepted some or all of them as canonical. Athanasius, accepted the book of Baruch as part of his Old Testament [Festal Letter 39], and Origen accepted all of the deuterocanonicals, he simply recommended not using them in disputations with Jews!"
    A Summary [much edited]
    Apostolic authorship is the most obvious and fundamental criterion for inclusion in the New Testament canon. But, if you only use this criterion, you're in trouble: Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans was not included in the New Testament canon! One exception to this rule is sufficient to sink it. The Apostle Paul is, in any case, a real thorn in the flesh for anyone trying to maintain this as the sole criterion for New Testament canonicity. Paul was not one of the Twelve. The Twelve exercised their Apostolic Magisterium and judged that Paul's teaching was of the Spirit [Gal. 2:2].

    Apostolic approval, either explicit or tacit, is another criterion for canonicity, but here again you are in trouble. Anyone using this argument without reference to the Church's Magisterium, perhaps to justify the inclusion of the Gospels in the canon, must also include the writings of Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and possibly also Papias. These (excellent, wholesome and edifying) writings were excluded on no other grounds than the judgement of the Spirit-inspired Magisterium of the Bishops-in-Succession.

    The idea that inspired texts make themselves apparent to the reader is partly valid. In terms of the oral Paradosis: often the 'common sense of the faithful' is sufficient criterion for canonicity: especially if that 'sense' is well informed by Paradosis. This best accounts for the inclusion of the Gospels in the canon, for example. On this basis alone, one cannot exclude the possibility of future addition to the canon, if suitable documents were to be found. With all the textual finds of the last few years, don't be surprised if '1 and 3' Corinthians appear from somewhere to take their place next to our current '2 and 4' Corinthians!

    Of course, the way in which the Old Testament canon was quite different, and not all the writings of the Old Testament are from prophetic sources either! Here, the only criterion was the Church's discernment of what was true, under the guidance of Holy Spirit.

    It is Holy Spirit in the Church, who speaks to the Church, through the Church.

    How is Sacred Scripture inspired?

    The following is heavily indebted to the article by J.H. Chrehan S.J. to be found in "A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture" (Nelson, Edinburgh 1953), especially for the quotations, references and outline argument. The original article is well intentioned and very informative but, it seems to me rather complacent. In particular it glosses over the teaching of pope Benedict XV ["Spiritus Paraclitus"], which is generally incompatible with the thesis that he wishes to propose and that I have taken further forward. As is now typical of neo-conservative Catholics, Chrehan relies too much on - what was for him - the latest teaching document to emerge from the Vatican, namely the encyclical "Divino Afflante".

    Jewish understanding of inspiration

    The Torah or Pentateuch was commonly held by the Jews to have come from God entire, in much the way that Muslims believe that the Koran was given to Mohammed. Even the final verses of Deuteronomy were sometimes thought to have been dictated by Moses before his death, though generally it was held that Joshua appended them. The prophets were thought to have been less completely controlled by God than Moses in their utterance; while the historians were accounted to have been merely assisted by God. The foundation for the Jewish theory of degrees of inspiration is 
    "If there be among you a prophet of the Lord, I will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream. But it is not so with my servant Moses... for I speak to him mouth to mouth and plainly: and not by riddles and figures. He hath seen the Lord"[Num 12:6].
    For the Jews, inspiration and inerrancy were tied up with the idea that what had been foretold by God's prophet would certainly happen: even though sometimes at least it did not! They regarded most of the books in their canon as being prophetical: for Moses was the greatest prophet, the psalmist was the royal prophet and even the Books of Kings were called prophetical. Moses is presented as writing his canticle at God's dictation, [Deut 31:19]. Moreover, "Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he spoke to him, upon the roll of a book", [Jer 36:4].

    Philo considered Scripture to have been written by men in ecstasy.

    [It was] "a god-indwelt possession and madness." [The prophet] "uttereth nothing of his own, but entirely what belongs to another who prompts him the while... The wise man is a resonant instrument, struck and beaten by the unseen hand of God".
    This inspiration was extended by him to the translators of the Septuagint, in the well known story of its origin which he recounts. The Targum, too, had its share of inspiration, for Jonathan ben Uzziel was said to have composed the Targum of the prophets with aid from Haggai, Zechariah, and Daniel! When it was finished, a voice from heaven asked: "Who has revealed my secrets?"

    The Witness of the New Testament

    The Apostles reaffirm the idea that the Scriptures are inspired. St Paul famously says:
    "All Scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice" [2 Tim 3:16]
    St Peter, agrees: 
    "Prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but men spoke on the part of God; inspired by the Holy Ghost" [2 Pet 1:21]
    This is an echo of an earlier  impromptu sermon:
    "God hath spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets from the beginning of the world" [Acts 3:21]
    Of all the New Testament writings, only the Apocalypse makes any claim to be inspired [Apoc 1:19,22:6], but St Peter expresses some kind of belief in the inspiration of "the epistles of our dearest brother Paul", when he says: 
    "The unlearned and unstable wrest these epistles, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction".

    The Witness of The Fathers

    Pope St Clement I indicates that he regard Paul's letters to Corinth as inspired:
    "In truth it was by the Spirit that he sent you a letter about himself Kephas and Apollos." [1 Clem 47:3]
    The old man to whom St Justin ascribes his conversion says:
    "There were long ago men more ancient than any of the philosophers now in repute, men who were happy, upright, and beloved of God, who spoke by the divine Spirit and gave oracles of the future which are now coming to pass. These men are called prophets. They alone saw the truth and proclaimed it to men, not practising any restriction, not made shamefaced nor swayed by boastfulness, but proclaiming that and that alone which they heard and saw, being filled with Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant." [Dial. Tryph 3-7]
    This shows that Christians of that time accepted the Old Testament as inspired.

    In a passage dealing with parables St Irenaeus says:

    "If we cannot find explanations of all things which require investigation in the Scriptures, let us not seek for a second god beyond The One Who Is, for that would be the height of impiety. We ought to leave such things to God who is after all our maker, and most justly to bear in mind that the Scriptures are perfect, being spoken by the Word of God and by his Spirit, while we, as lesser beings, and indeed as the least of all, in comparison with the Word of God and with his Spirit, in that proportion fall short of the understanding of God's mysteries." [Adv. Haer. 2:4]
    Athenagoras adopts the comparison of the player and the musical instrument which occurs in Philo:
    "The words of the prophets guarantee our reasoning... for they, while the reasoning power within them was at a stand, under the motion of the divine Spirit, spoke forth what was being wrought in them, the Spirit working with them, as it were a piper who breathed into his pipe" [Legat. 9]
    Theophilus of Antioch, writes:
    "The men of God were spirit borne and became prophets; being breathed upon by God himself and made wise, they were taught of God, holy and just. Thus they were deemed fit to receive the name of the instruments of God, and were enabled to hold the wisdom of God by means of which they spoke about the creation of the world and all else... and there were not one or two of them but many, and all spoke in harmony and accord with each other of those things which happened before their time, or during their time, and also of what is now coming to pass in our days.... These statements of the prophets about justice and those of the gospels are found to be in harmony because their authors were all spirit borne and spoke by the Spirit of God".
    [Patrologia Greca, ed Migne: 6 1064,1137]

    The Scholastics and Protestants

    In general the Middle Ages took the question of how Scripture was inspired for granted. However, Richard Fitzralph (Archbishop of Armagh c 1356), did advance the discussion when he asserted in his dialogue with John the Armenian, that  Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture, while the human writer is the immediate author.

    The Catholic theologian Lessius rejected that understanding of verbal inspiration which amounts to "divine ventriloquism" and Cardinal Bellarmine supported him in this. In contrast to this sensible view, the Anglican heretic Cartwright, held to a strict (almost Koranic) verbal inspiration even to the exclusion of all textual corruption:

    "Seeing the Scripture wholly both for matter and words is inspired of God, it must follow that the same words wherein the Old Testament and New Testament were written and indited by the hand of God do remaine".
    The Swiss "formula consensus" (1675 AD) has it that all vowel points and accents were due to inspiration and that no barbarisms of language could occur in biblical Greek or Hebrew! However, it was not just heretics that held such views. The Catholic theologian Banez did too! The Oecumenical Vatican Council, refrained from pronouncing on the dispute between him and Lessius.

    Modern re-evaluation of the concept of inspiration

    The Oecumenical Vatican Council explicitly rejected the idea that the Church not only guarded the canon of Scripture but actually gave the books their inspired character, adding that it was because they had God for their (principal) author and as such were given to the Church that the books of the Bible were to be regarded as inspired [Dz 1787].

    Pope Leo XIII taught in "Providentissimus Deus" (1893) that inspiration included both:

    • the arousing of the human author to write by the action of Holy Spirit;
    • and the assistance given by the Spirit in the work of composition,
    so that those things only and wholly which He wished should be written down [Dz 1952].

    The Thomists developed an instrumental theory of Inspiration. As an instrument is said to have no action at all except as moved or applied by some higher agent, so the biblical authors are envisaged to be set in motion by God to produce even such effects as might be within their natural powers. In this view, inspiration is a divine action upon the intellect under whose impetus it clearly perceives exactly what God wishes to be written, and then sets about writing it. This replaces a word-for-word Divine Dictation by a "total" Inspiration. On this theory, God is the total author (and not merely principal) of the text while the human writer was to be regarded as the total author, in his degree.

    The Divine Condescension
    Now, whereas the idea of instrumental cause surely applies to Inspiration, it would seem that a mere instrument would be unintelligent and passive in the hands of God. On the contrary, in the co-authorship of the Scriptures God acts in and through the human author, as an author, and not merely through him as an unskilled tool. We have already read that the human authors themselves:
    • "spoke on the part of God" 
      • [2 Pet 1:21]
    • "spoke by the divine Spirit and gave oracles of the future"
    • "saw the truth and proclaimed it to men"
    • "proclaiming that and that alone which they heard and saw" 
      • [Justin Martyr]
    • "being breathed upon by God himself and made wise, they were taught of God, holy and just."
    • "were enabled to hold the wisdom of God by means of which they spoke"
    • "were all spirit borne and spoke by the Spirit of God" 
      • [Theophilus of Antioch]
    Hence the Thomist theory is inadequate. While God did work through human writers to produce the Scriptures as through instruments (just as John Damascene speaks of the Sacred Humanity of Christ being the instrument of His Divinity); because the instruments were human God worked in them too; the human writers making full use of their intellect and will as they co-operated with God's grace. Of course, the testimony of Athenagoras is somewhat contrary to this.

    This is well demonstrated by the language of the Second Book of Maccabees, where the human author reflects on his labours of composition; their difficulty, purpose, and method. While God often gave the prophets their theme by direct revelation, so that they were well aware that they dealt with God, this was not always so. God worked with different individuals for different ends in different ways. He could just as well motivate a man to write a summary of Jason's histories of Judas Maccabeus' revolt against Macedonian rule, protect him from making any substantive error, and by condescension allow him to give vent to his  weariness; the compiler being entirely unaware that he walked with God. Clearly the subjective experience of the writer of the Apocalypse, who was acutely conscious of the fact that he was being inspired will have been entirely different that of the writer of the Second Book of  Maccabees, who - pretty clearly - was not!

    The collaboration of God and the human writers was by no means hypostatic! In each case, there was a distinct and beloved human person and identity involved in the work, alongside (but under the direction of) Holy Spirit! God entirely respected the autonomy of the human authors, allowing them to exercise their own skills, express their own thoughts and manifest their own personalities as they wrote under His influence. Divine condescension is so gracious in supporting the human author's autonomy that it must be supposed that its only limit is set by the need that the final outcome of the process be entirely fit for God's purpose. As Pope Pius XII put it:

    "Catholic theologians, following the teaching of the holy fathers and especially of the Angelic and Common Doctor have investigated and explained the nature and effects of divine inspiration better and more fully than was the custom in past centuries. Starting from the principle that the sacred writer is the organon, or instrument, of the Holy Spirit, and a living and rational instrument, they rightly observe that under the influence of the divine motion he uses his own faculties and powers in such a way that from the book which is the fruit of his labour all may easily learn the distinctive genius and individual characteristics and features of each author." [Pius XII: Divino Afflante #37]
    wisely noting also that:
    "Just as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, sin excepted, so the words of God, expressed in human language, became in all things like to human speech, error excepted"
    [Pius XII, Divino Afflante #41]
    This all means that one can expect to find in the different books of the Bible differences of style and of literary genre. Moreover, pope Pius XII wisely reminded us that:
    "To express what they had in their minds the ancients of the East did not always use the same forms and expressions as used today. They used those which were current among the people of their own time and place, and what these were the exegete cannot determine a priori, but only from a careful study of oriental literature." [Pius XII, Divino Afflante #39]
    More recently, the human element in the composition of the Gospels was officially recognized in the "Dei Verbum":
    "To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties... God speaks through men in human fashion... the interpreter of sacred Scriptures… must look for that meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given the circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express... Thus the writers of the Gospels as well as all the scriptures are human authors in the fullest sense of the word: if we are to understand the word of God speaking through them, we must first understand the human elements of the composition... The fact that there is a human element and human prejudice within the writings is not an obstacle but the vehicle through which we hear the word of God." [Dei Verbum #11,12]
    The word "prejudice" is, it seems to me, regrettable!

    It must also be remarked that a text may: as well as its primary, literal, obvious or manifest sense, this meaning being open to the comprehension of the human author and normally explicitly understood and intended by him or her; support a secondary or spiritual sense, this meaning being intended ab initio by God, to emerge or arise or be recognized according to Divine Providence within the life and worship of the Church. In such cases:

    "God alone was able to know this spiritual significance and He alone could reveal it to us." [Pius XII, Divino Afflante #31]
    Thus, whereas all in the Scriptures is from God; not all is from the human authors.

    The Extent of Inspiration

    My first priestly correspondent, 'B', wrote:
    "I do not remember what I learnt about how much God actually inspired, and how much is attributable to the human writer.
    • Is the inspiration equal or unequal for the various writings?
    • Did God inspire only the collection and the preservation of some of those books?
    • Did he inspire a general idea behind the stories, which the Church has to try to dig out of the mud, like a pearl gatherer?
    • Is every separate thought inspired, or just the main thought?
    • What is covered by inerrancy?
    • Which of the very differing versions of Tobias (and some other books of the Old Testament) is the divinely inspired one (of course, it is not direct inspiration anyway, as that can be claimed only by the autograph.)
    • Does the Church know the answer to this question?
    • How does this question affect the whole concept of divine inspiration, canonicity and inerrancy?
    I had in school a good book on the subject called 'Introduzione alla Sacra Scrittura', which is out of print, and which I no longer possess. Alas. Please forgive my ignorance due to faulty memory and lack of current reading on the subject.
    Luckily for us catholics, our faith does not depend upon the answer or lack of answer to these and similar questions. For, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly points out, ours is not a Religion of a Book, but the religion of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ.
    We believe that God loves us not because 'The Bible tells us so', but because the Church shows us so, in the gifts to us of her faith, her sacraments and her charity. Which is why it is so painful when the Church seems to show us the opposite of divine Love, either by being negligent in her duties of teaching and sanctifying, or by declaring our personalities disordered and us unfit to receive the means of grace." ["B" (October 2005)]
    A theory first put out by Dr H. Holden, an English priest in 1658, limited the scope of inspiration. Holden said:
    "The special and divine assistance which is given to the author of every such book as the Church receives for the Word of God doth only extend itself to those things which are doctrinal, or at least have some near or necessary relation unto them. But in those things which are written by the bye, or have reference to something else not concerning religion, I conceive the author had only such a divine assistance as other holy and saintly authors have".
    Cardinal Manning defended Holden as orthodox but muddled, and Cardinal Newman revived the theory of obiter dicta being uninspired:
    "Obiter dictum means as I understand it, a phrase or sentence which, whether a statement of literal fact or not, is not from the circumstances binding upon our faith... There does not seem to be any serious difficulty in admitting that they are found in Scripture. The Church has taught us in two councils that the divine inspiration of Scripture is to be assigned especially rebus fidei et morum." ["The Nineteenth Century": Feb 1884]
    This is amounts to an inference from what the Synods of Trent and the Vatican had said about the Vulgate's safety in faith and morals to a conclusion regarding inspiration. After this, pope Leo XIII wrote:
    "The method of those is not to be tolerated who, to rid themselves of these difficulties [of apparent error in the Bible] readily grant that divine inspiration pertains to matters of faith and morals and nothing more. " [Providentissimus Deus, 1893 Dz 1950].
    Note the careful qualifications "readily" and "nothing". In strict logic this sentence excludes almost nothing!

    Diverging opinions are held by theologians on the inspiration of versions. Some of the Fathers shared Philo's view that the Septuagint was inspired. On the question of those Old Testament books, originally written in Hebrew but whose original is lost to us, such as 1 Mac; views have been expressed ranging from unqualified affirmation to total denial that the versions which we do possess are inspired as such. My original Priestly correspondent adopts a middle of the road position:

    "Only the actual documents written by the human authors themselves, are considered to be inspired by God. Not the copies thereof, or the copies of copies of copies, or their translations. The Septuagint, though a translation, is also considered to be inspired because of the many passages worded differently - in a messianic sense - and because of the parts missing in the Hebrew. This means, that any later manipulations of the text - such as perhaps ascribing to God the responsibility for what human beings themselves did - would not be inspired." ["B" (October 2005)]

    How is Sacred Scripture Inerrant?

    The proof from Tradition that the Church has always regarded the Scriptures as "free from error" is simple.
    • An attitude of awe and reverence before the Scriptures is already present in Polycarp who writes:
      • "It it not possible for anyone like myself to company with the wisdom of the blessed and renowned Paul... who wrote to you" [Ad Phil. 3].
    • The care that the Spirit showed to keep corrupters of doctrine from the Scriptures is marked by Irenaeus:
      • "The Holy Spirit, foreseeing that there would be corrupters, guarded against their deceits and declared in Matthew 'Now the manner of Christ's birth was thus...'" [Adv. Haer 3:17].
    • Origen declares the principle formally:
      • "The Evangelists neither lied nor made any mistake" [In Jn. 6:34].
      • However, he elsewhere notes the undoubted fact that in the Gospel of Matthew, a text actually due to Zechariah is wrongly attributed to Jeremiah [Mat 27:9].
    • St Augustine laid down a rule, which western exegetes have followed for many centuries:
      • "If I come upon anything in the Scriptures which seems contrary to the truth, I shall not hesitate to consider that it is no more than a faulty reading of the manuscript; or a failure of the translator to hit off what his text declared; or that I have not succeeded in understanding the passage" [Ep. 82]
    Pope Benedict XV summed up the tradition thus:
    "The teaching of St Jerome is strikingly confirmed by what our predecessor Leo XIII declared to be the unbroken and ancient faith of the Church about the absolute immunity of the Scriptures from error of every kind:
    'It makes no difference at all that the Holy Ghost should have taken men to be - as it were - His tools in writing, as if forsooth the men who were inspired, but not the divine author, might let fall some error. Not so, for He Himself so stirred and roused them by His supernatural power to write, and was so present to them in their writing that they conceived correctly, and were minded to write faithfully; and expressed fittingly with unfailing truth, all those things and those only which He bade them write.'  [Leo XVIII "Providentissimus Deus" (1893) Dz 1952]"
    [Benedict XV "Spiritus Paraclitus" Dz 2186]

    What, more exactly, is error?

    In studying these matters, it rapidly becomes apparent that the meaning of the word "error" is at issue here. For the earlier authorities, this is a simple matter. For them any proposition is either true or false and any proposition found in Scripture is bound to be true. Clearly, this attitude is based on a naïve epistemology and begs Pilot's question: "What is Truth?" As the debate progressed, this position became untenable; and the meaning and application of the word "error" was nuanced in various ways. According to Dr Ludwig Ott:
    "Even though all Holy Writ is inspired and is the Word of God still, following St. Thomas [Sent. II d. I2 q. I a. 2], a distinction must be made between that which is inspired per se, and that which is inspired per accidens. As the truths of Revelation laid down in Holy Writ are designed to serve the end of religious and moral teaching, inspiration per se extends only to the religious and moral truths. The profane facts of natural science and history contained in Holy Writ are not inspired per se, but only per accidens, that is, by virtue of their relationship to the religious-moral truths. The data inspired per accidens is also the Word of God, and consequently without error. However, as the hagiographers in profane things make use of a popular that is, a non-scientific form of exposition suitable to the mental perception of their times, a more liberal interpretation is possible here."  [Ott II 2.1.11]
    Now it is apparent on even a cursory reading of Scripture that it is not "inerrant" in any simple sense. For it contains a substantial number of definite trivial errors:
    • Difficulties from Mathematics
      1. p  =  3 [1 Kgs 7:23]
      2. Gross mistakes in adding up [Num 3:39, Ezra 1:7-11; 2:64, Neh 7:66]
      3. A text actually due to Zechariah is wrongly attributed to Jeremiah [Mat 27:9]
    • Difficulties from Science
      1. Bats are a kind of bird [Lev 11:13-19, Deut 14:11-18]
      2. Insects have four feet [Lev 11:21-23]
      3. Hares chew the cudd [Lev 11:6]
      4. The sun moves about the Earth, like the Moon [Josh 10:12-13]
      5. The Earth stands still [1 Chron 16:30]
    • Difficulties from Theology
      1. God, who is a Spirit, "walks" and so must have feet [Gen 3:8]
      2. The omnipotent and impassible God was "refreshed" by resting after the six days of creation [Ex 31:17]
      3. Moses [Num 12:6-8] (and others [Ex 24:1-11]) spoke with God face to face;
        • and yet it is elsewhere said that this is impossible because "no-one may see God and live" [Ex 33:13-23].
    • Difficulties from History
      1. The utter destruction of Tyre is wrongly predicted [Ezk 26:1-14; 27:32]
        • It is later admitted that this failed to happen [Ezk 29:17-18]
      2. The military-political predictions of the book of Daniel were largely unfulfilled.
    Difficulties from Mathematics
    While the matter of  "p  =  3" may easily be explained in terms of colloquial approximation, none of this touches the question of elementary arithmetic errors. These cannot be accounted for as "turns of phrase" or "approximations". While some might be due to the errors of copyists, it is altogether more plausible that they testify to the general innumeracy of the ancient Hebrews, who were not renowned as any kind of mathematicians! The erroneous attribution of a text from Zechariah to Jeremiah [Mat 27:9] is of a similar character.
    Difficulties from Science
    Pope Leo XIII dealt with the objection that inerrancy set the truth of the Bible in opposition to the truth of physical science.
    "No error whatever exists in those cases in which the sacred writer, when treating of physical matters, followed sensible appearances [St Thomas, 1a q 70, art 1 ad 3], expressing himself either, metaphorically or in the common manner of speaking current at the time, and current now also in many matters of daily experience, even amongst the most learned men. The sacred writers - or more properly the Holy Ghost who spoke through them - did not intend to teach men these matters (namely, the inner constitution of visible things) which are in no way profitable to salvation" [Providentissimus Deus, 1893 Dz 1947, subsequently quoted in Divino Afflante # 5]
    This seems to accord entirely with what I take to be the obvious meaning of Cardinal Newman and Dr Holden, if not quite what they said. The difference between them and pope Leo is that His Holiness wished to stress that even the colloquial inexactitudes and apparent irrelevancies contained in Scripture are inspired "per accidens" and so exactly what God wishes them to be: even if He "wishes" them to be formally wrong!
    Difficulties from History
    Pope Leo went on to indicate how this principle might be used to deal with some difficulties from history. His words were understood in various ways.

    One attempt to meet charges of error in Scripture was "The Theory of Implicit Citations", advanced by P. Prat and others between 1902 and 1907. They argued that since all ancient authors quoted freely, and since plagiarism was accounted no offence; some of the apparent errors of sacred writers could be explained by supposing them to be quoting without reference from some non inspired author. The potential breadth of application of this theory is apparent on reading the second Chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees. As its inspired author summarized five books penned by the uninspired historian Jason, might not any errors present in the canonical text be put down to Jason? While the Biblical Commission did not condemn the theory, it did urge restraint in its use.

    Pope Benedict XV later renewed this verdict of the Biblical Commission [Dz 2188], while more generally condemning the typical way in which he judged pope Leo's teaching was being misapplied in the most forthright terms ["Spiritus Paraclitus" Dz 2187]. In effect, he asserted that this would lead to the entire undermining of the authority of Scripture.

    Pope Pius XII subsequently over-turned Benedict's blanket condemnation ["Divino Afflante" Dz  2294]. He nevertheless insisted that it was vital to ascertain the purpose of the scriptural writer (especially as shown in his choice of literary genre) before accusing him of errors.

    The 1948 letter of the Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard [Dz 2302] deals with the question as to how this principle might be applied to the Torah. Recalling an earlier decision [Dz 1999], it states that no one can seriously doubt that Moses used earlier written documents and oral traditions in preparing the Pentateuch. What then, more exactly, was Moses inspired to do in his selection or rejection of passages from earlier sources?

    • If he made them his own, vouching for them;
      • then he must be held to have put them forward as true.
    • If, however, he merely reported them as what was told to him, without vouching for them;
      • then there are no grounds on which to expect them to be free from intrinsic error.
      • Instead, "inerrancy" would mean simply that:
      • Moses did in fact accurately record the narrative as he received it.
    This question hinges on the literary genre of (especially) the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The Commission remarked that one can neither simply affirm nor deny that they are "history" without applying to them the standards of a literary genre which does not really fit them. The text is not history in a classical or a modern sense, but sits somewhere between history and myth; being an account of the remote past as handed on by oral tradition from one generation to another. Some elements of this tradition one must presume have their origins in real events, while others have more the form of "just so stories". The peoples of the Orient have had a special way of their own of recounting events which is worthy of patient investigation. It is open to no one, then, to say roundly that there is error in these chapters. This because it is not always clear what in fact the human author there sought to affirm, owing to our ignorance of his conventions.

    Two years later, Pope Pius XII urged caution in these matters:

    "We must specially deplore a certain excessively free way of interpreting the historical books of the Old Testament .... the first eleven chapters of Genesis, even though they do not fully match the pattern of historical composition used by the great Greek and Latin writers of history, or by modern historians, yet in a certain true sense - which needs further investigation by scholars - do pertain to the genre of history."
    [Pope Pius XII "Humani Generis" (1950)]
    None of this addresses the problem represented by the twenty-sixth and twenty-ninth chapters of Ezekiel, where a prophetic prediction at first seems to fail and is then more or less explicitly acknowledged by the prophet to have failed.

    I have written further on the decrees of the Pontifical Bible Commission elsewhere.

    Difficulties from Theology
    Benedict XV [Dz 2188] spoke severely of scholars who had recourse to literary genres incompatible with the full truth of the Word of God. Nevertheless, Pius XII later encouraged the study of literary forms:
    "It is absolutely necessary for the interpreter to go back in spirit to those remote centuries of the East, making proper use of the help afforded by history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences, in order to discover what literary forms the writers of that early age intended to use and did in fact employ....
    The Catholic exegete must ask himself how far the form of expression or literary idiom employed by the sacred writer may contribute to the true and genuine interpretation; and he may be sure that this part of his task cannot be neglected without great detriment to Catholic exegesis. For... in many cases in which the sacred authors are accused of some historical inaccuracy or of the inexact recording of some events, it is found to be a question of nothing more than those customary and characteristic forms of expression or styles of narrative which were current in human intercourse among the ancients, and which were in fact quite legitimately and commonly employed.
    A just impartiality therefore demands that when these are found in the Word of God, which is expressed in human language for men's sake, they should be no more stigmatized as error than when similar expressions are employed in daily usage. Thus a knowledge and careful appreciation of ancient modes of expression and literary forms and styles will provide a solution to many of the objections made against the truth and historical accuracy of Holy Writ."  [Divino Afflante #39]
    Hence, when God is spoken of as "walking in the garden" [Gen 3:8], it is not the purpose of the writer to describe the means of locomotion of the Divine Presence; but only to indicate that God was present and was considerate enough to give notice of this fact by sensible means.

    The matter of God being "refreshed" by "resting" [Ex 31:17] is more difficult to deal with as this would seem to reveal something of the Inner Life of God: which matter can by no means be accounted unprofitable to salvation, unless the whole of Trinitarian Dogma is so discounted! Manifestly, the human writer thought the point he was making to be important, and the point at issue was not accidental to some other matter under consideration. Now this text can easily be interpreted as a projection onto God of the good purpose of the Sabbath for (wo)men. The idea being to argue that "if it is good enough for God then it is good enough for you"; and also perhaps to insinuate that God will be found in the peace and quiet of rest and recuperation and finally to remove any possible motive for feelings of guilt: that the Sabbath rest is just an excuse for sloth and indolence! Nevertheless, such an interpretation does not - in any simple sense - alter the fact that what the text actually says, which I am sure is exactly what its human writer meant it to signify, is formally erroneous.

    Why is the Church so keen on Scriptural Inerrancy?

    Given the manifest fact that the Sacred Scriptures do contain things that are difficult to distinguish from "errors", why is it that the Church has always held firmly to the proposition that the Scriptures are inerrant? Consider, for a moment, what would be implied, both theoretically and practically, were the alternate position to be adopted.
    • If the Scriptures contain errors, then it would be incumbent upon the Church to identify them and eliminate them.
      • This is exactly what Marcion and Luther both did.
      • It is what the translators of the NIV frequently do.
    • This would inevitably mean that the text would be subject to a never-ending process of emendation and "improvement" as secular human knowledge advanced.
    • Many such "corrections" would be no such thing: just changes made according to the taste and prejudice of the latest editor!
    • It would also mean that it would be incumbent on the Magisterium to bring the text into alignment with official teaching and make it entirely impossible for official teaching to be challenged on the basis of Scriptural testimony.
    • It would also make it possible for the hierarchy to sanitize the Scriptures: removing from them elements uncongenial to their tastes, such as the Books of Job: with its apparent hedonism; the Song of Songs: with its explicit eroticism; or the Apocalypse: which the Eastern Church has never been comfortable with.

    • [after 'D', private communication, October 2005]
    All of the above reeks of heterodoxy as well as heteropraxy. Hence, I suggest that the Magisterium's absolute commitment to "Inerrancy" amounts to a manifestation of Her knowledge that the Scriptures are Irreformable.

    Inspiration as Process

    My lay correspondent proposed:
    "A looser definition of 'inspiration' might be more helpful: the authors of the biblical texts, and those who collected and edited their writings, all believed in God, and believed they were obeying God's will by writing, or collecting and editing, what they wrote; but it is quite possible, even probable in many cases, that their understanding of God was inadequate. God for His part has allowed that these texts be preserved and read; but they are not to be relied on to tell us anything specifically true about His nature or His will; they must be interpreted only as reflecting the basic theological truths: God created the world and all things in it, God loves Israel, God hates sin, and a few others on that level.

    Admittedly, this looser interpretation of 'inspiration' puts some strain on the doctrine of inerrancy. We should insist in this case as well that that word be interpreted with nuance. The Bible can be in error, only if we misinterpret it. And we misinterpret it, if we fail to divine the deep theological wisdom beneath the surface of the literal meanings." ["MS" (October 2005)]

    I think that while this suggestion is flawed, and I suspect formally heretical, within it is the answer to our entire problem.

    It seems to me that the questions of canonicity, inspiration and inerrancy are bound up one with another, such that they cannot be dealt with analytically - one at a time - in the way that the article in "A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture" attempts to. I think that it is necessary to see each of these questions as an aspect of a single question, namely "How Has God Spoken To His People?".

    As soon as this question is asked, it is apparent that the first and superlative answer is simply:

    • "Through the Incarnation of the Divine Logos",
      • and after this:
    • "Through the continuing guidance of Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church",
      • and then also:
    • "Through the Creative Act by which God brought into being all that is: visible and invisible".
    As my correspondent 'H' wrote [slightly edited]:
    "The 'revelation' of the Decalogue to Moses is probably the only time that God has actually personally contributed to the canon, directly. At least, so Tradition goes. But I think this is a nice example of  inspiration: God reveals (in this case He also writes), the revelation is received by an intermediary (who, in this case, is little more than a channel, but mostly this intermediary is an instrument: God uses the faculties of this person - mental, emotional, and so on - to particularize the inspiration. Luke's writings bear his personality, etc.), and passed on to the Qahal/Ekklesia [= Church, Congregation or Assembly] as instruction or Torah.
    I think from a New Testament perspective, "the canon" is a person, not a book [Heb. 1:1-3], Jesus Christ; and is also contained in the Church, which is His pleroma [= fullness or completion]  [Eph. 1:23]. This nicely links the Acts of  Revelation to the Living Church. I also think we need to emphasize that the Act of  Revelation is the Revelation Itself, and the written record of it is entirely secondary. For example, the "Exodus Event" was the revelation of God, and its historical account in the Tanach [= Hebrew Bible] is the inspired faith history in canon of this revelation." ["H" (October 2005)]
    Only when all this glory has been rehearsed is it possible to start looking at the processes by which Sacred Scripture came into being and is interpreted.

    Note that word "processes", for I think this to be crucial. The Bible did not suddenly come into being. Neither was it dictated by an Angel or presented in a vision, neither does any any such event account for its genesis. No! The Bible is not what the Koran is supposed to be: the "words of god". Rather, many of God's friends at first spoke and then later wrote, as best they were able, of the God that they knew and loved; and of their experience of Him, according to their understanding; and of their convictions regarding His nature and disposition towards WoMankind; and of their appreciation of His dealings with His People. This was a human enterprise, though blessed and encouraged and elicited by God.

    In the beginning they recounted stories and myths about the past: some based on personal recollection of what had been, some based on accounts passed on to them by their ancestors, some set forth to rationalize or disclose the meaning and significance of otherwise inexplicable observations and day-to-day experience. Later, these words were recorded by priests and scribes as sacred texts. The first scribes wrote what they would, while being concerned to faithfully represent the oral tradition that they had received; but in their working God was intimately present: granting them insight and wisdom and eliciting from them, by His grace, exactly what He would. Much of what was written by early authors was passed on to later ones who lovingly conflated and blended strands of testimony into a single ever-growing and strengthening tradition. In all of this, at each stage of this process, God was active as guide and gentle director. In His providence, as the texts developed they became exactly what He wanted them to become: the Divine Torah. In both Jewish and Catholic thought, Moses is thought to have had a pivotal role in making the Torah what it is.

    An Anglo-Catholic friend "DJ" kindly brought to my attention the following pertinent Anglican text:
    "God has spoken to us in a variety of ways: God's word comes from different sources which carry somewhat different nuances. It is too easy to claim that scripture and tradition are orthodox [sources] and that reason and experience represent secular departures. All three persons of the Trinity point in the same direction: Jesus doesn't tell us that Shalom and Decalogue no longer matter; the Spirit doesn't tell us that the peace of Christ is now passé. The Old Testament urges inclusion of the outcast. The Spirit of Jesus, forming the new creation, the Body of Christ, as the focus of God's reconciling actions in the world, talks to us through our experience.

    So 'revisionism' is not an accurate term if it implies that scripture and tradition have always been the same from the beginning and are only now being challenged from within the Church by a spirit of secularism. Scripture and tradition are not opposed to contemporary experience. They themselves are records of other generations' risky, uncertain experience - Abraham had no scripture to consult when discerning whether he was to leave home.

    Scripture is an untidy collection of homely stories, examples and analogies designed to point out God's ways of being made flesh because to be flesh is to enter the diversity of times and places. The polyphonic harmony sung throughout the ages can accommodate some discordant notes and allow them to expand and deepen the harmonic counterpoint. Opening ourselves to the potential working of the spirit in our own contemporary experience is essential to our identity as Christians: it is not an option. Discernment is based upon, 'That doesn't sound like the voice of Jesus; it is not life-giving, redeeming word.'" ["Living Together in the Church" pp 241-256, slightly edited]

    From this perspective, inspiration is not the prerogative of one particular author or editor; but rather of a whole community and succession of authors, scribes and editors. Inspiration is a property of a sociological process, which nevertheless has a definite outcome. Hence questions about whether this human agent or that one was inspired and whether this version of the text is inspired rather than that one do not really arise. The text develops towards an "Omega Point" or finality: and as it does so, it participates more and more fully in the Divine Form of the Torah. Differing versions may each have value as offering alternate insights that - although perhaps formally contradictory - may yet form the basis of a later synthesis.

    From this perspective, inerrancy means just that there is "nothing wrong" with the Torah: that it is exactly fit for the purpose that God intends it to have in the Life of His People. It does not mean that every statement is formally correct in every detail. Sometimes the inadequacies themselves teach us wisdom: in particular the great truth that what matters isn't detail but the overall effect of a thing! In the midst of life there is death: catabolism as well as anabolism, but this does not compromise life itself.

    From this perspective canonicity means just that the People of God know - of the very nature of the case - what is the text that they are developing as their own History and Constitution. There is no doubt regarding what is inside or outside the canon, for the canon is nothing more than the "work in progress" and, until that work is complete, it has porous edges.

    The rest of the writings of the Old Testament developed in analogous ways. In some cases individuals were more or less sole authors of books, and these texts were recognized as part of  the dialogue between God and His Chosen People. In other cases texts grew by accretion or edition with a number of authors and scribes contributing to the final product. In all cases, God was the principle author of the text; for He knew what part He wished each text to play in the Life of His People and He made sure that it was entirely fit for that purpose.

    The Truth of Scripture may only be only discovered by the People whose Book it is. Only they are the context that gives it the meaning that God intended it to have. Only within the Church can the Scriptures be properly understood and interpreted and only in this context can their significance be rightly known. Inerrancy is an aspect of the Infallibility of the Church's Magisterium. It means that when rightly interpreted - in concord with the Dynamic Tradition of the Church - the Scriptures are a faithful and sure source of Doctrine and a certain guide to God's purposes and nature.

    Canonicity is also an aspect of the Infallibility of the Church's Magisterium. It means that the People of God recognize that which is especially theirs; without rejecting other worthwhile testimony (for the Church can hardly be said to pay no account to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, or to dismiss them as mere private theologians!) This perhaps explains why the Church did not hesitate to accept the deuterocanon as authoritative and recognize it to be Divinely Inspired. As my Priestly Corespondent 'B' has indicated, there is much of obvious great worth and nobility and spiritual value in the Wisdom Literature, at least.

    All is process. The only perspective from which to judge these matters is from inside the process. The outsider can never understand what it is all about. The situation is very much akin to that of the Definition of Doctrine of which I have written elsewhere. It is not tidy; but neither does it need to be.

    The problem of pseudepigraphy
    My lay correspondent suggested:
    "You might want to say more about the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy, especially in the New Testament. You already say something about the related phenomenon of traditional ascription in the formation of the Old Testament canon, at least regarding Moses as the traditional author of the Pentateuch - to which can be added David as the Psalmist, Solomon as the author of some Wisdom literature, Daniel as the author of the apocalyptic chapters in the latter half of the Book of Daniel. Do not forget, by the way, there are two Septuagint recensions of Daniel, more important than the recensions of Tobit, inasmuch as Daniel is a more prestigious book. You should also observe how pseudepigraphy works in the New Testament. The consensus of scholars both Catholic and Protestant limit the number of Pauline letters actually written by Paul (to wit, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon). The others in the Pauline corpus are pseudepigraphical. Same with the two letters attributed to Peter, which were written long after Peter had died." ["MS" (October 2005)]
    Determining the authorship of a document from its internal character is fraught with difficulty, once any explicit claim that it makes to be written by a named individual are discounted. Equally, the arguments advanced by contemporary scholars against the Pauline or Petrine authorship of those Epistles explicitly claiming to have been penned (or dictated) by Paul or Peter are in my judgement inadequate. They generally start from some arbitrary principle that begs the question, such as "Rome was only referred to as Babylon by Jews after the sack of Jerusalem, hence the Second Epistle of Peter must have been written after 70 A.D. and so cannot have been written by Peter". This argument is seriously proposed in the introduction to this book in a modern study edition of the NRSV which I posses. An opposing and altogether more convincing argument - which it is not appropriate to repeat here - is given by H. Willmering S.J. in his commentary on this Epistle in "A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture".

    This is not to say that I hold unequivocally to the proposition that all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him, and similarly the two Epistles of Peter or the three of John. I must confess that I do not know for sure. Nevertheless, I prefer the self-testimony of the authors of these letters to the scholarship of modern academics in this matter. In the end, from the point of view of a Catholic this really doesn't matter.

    • I have no difficulty with the idea that in antiquity it was common for authors to make use of the name of others who were accepted to be authorities when writing documents of their own.
      • A substantial minority of the documents to be found in the standard collection of "Plato's works" are now - on the basis of internal evidence - more or less universally acknowledged to have been written by later disciples rather than the Master, himself. Some of these are worthy of serious study.
    • In the end all that matters is that a document is a faithful witness to the Apostolic Tradition.
      • The fact that no claim of Apostolic authorship has ever been seriously advanced for two of the four canonical Gospels makes this fact very clear.
      • After all, who exactly was "Mark" and on what basis did Luke take it upon himself to write either his gospel or the sequel "The Acts of the Apostles"?
    The context in which pseudepigraphy is an embarrassment is Evangelization. It would be very convenient to be able to give to an enquirer a set of texts which could be said - unequivocally - to be historically accurate, impartial, eye-witness accounts of the life, teaching, passion and resurrection of Our Lord. It would be only slightly less useful to have a corpus of writing to hand known to have been penned by His Apostles, giving expression to His teaching as applied in the lived experience of His Infant Church. Unfortunately, this is not possible; and we should acknowledge this fact. It does no good to pretend that the authorship of all the documents of the New Testament is known, but neither is it advisable to dismiss the claims to authorship that they make lightly. After all, such things are often a matter of fashion: a perspective that would be treated with derision by some establishment in one year will later be acclaimed as the universal consensus of all right-thinking scholars a few years later.

    Individual Issues

    I shall now attempt to deal with all the particular issues raised by my correspondent "B". I do not think that many of them are at all easy. Nor do I think that I have a good answer for most. All I can do is offer my best insights and hope that someone else will be able to advance the argument further.
    Divine petulance and wrath
    The Torah presents a confused message. On some occasions, God is represented as kind, indulgent, understanding and forgiving. On others, God is represented as judgmental, vindictive, jealous and almost childishly petulant. Sometimes the two images are presented together [Num 14:18-20]. Clearly, the Hebrews' understanding of God's character and of what God wanted from them was conditioned by their own expectations.

    I have always interpreted the character of the rows between God and Moses [Ex 32:1-14,35 Num 14:10-35 Deut 9:13-14,19,25] as the means by which God led Moses to understand that "I Am not like that at all". If Moses could be led to oppose God and apparently convince Him to change His (unchangeable) mind, then Moses would be convinced that God really meant it. After all, the incident of Aaron's Golden Calf must have been a profound disappointment for Moses; whereas God always knew that it was going to happen - it was no surprise to God at all! It must also be born in mind that sometimes it was Moses that played the part of complainant and God who calmed Moses' indignation [Ex 5:22-6:1 Num 11:10-23] and that at least on one occasion the anger of Moses and the anger of God are more or less equated [Num 11:10].

    In every case, it is vital to evaluate the row it terms of its outcome. Generally these are favourable and gracious. The punishment meted out on the prophetess Miriam [Num 12] for "bitching at Moses" was quite mild; almost a tease, in fact. The incident of the fiery serpents [Num 21:6-9] was resolved by the creation of the great bronze totem, which John's Gospel presents as a proto-type of the Cross of Jesus. God was engaged in a teacher-pupil relationship with Moses and the Hebrew tribes. He always knew what He was up to and what He was going to do. Often, they projected onto Him their expectations, which He had to erode by constructive engagement with them as they were, with the mind-set and world-view that they then had. At first they undoubtedly perceived The Lord God of Hosts to be their tribal war-god, even though this was not the role that He had played in the life of Abraham or Jacob or Joseph.

    God had to move His People on from this impoverished and limited vision. He did so by steps; presenting them with graded "learning activities" calculated to make them question and re-evaluate their own prejudices by a Socratic process of confrontation and contradiction. It must be born in mind that sometimes the only way of getting a message through to a child (or hysterical adult) is with a slap. Such an action is liable to be understood in terms of anger on the part of the assailant, even if no such emotion is present at all. When God threatened punishment, it was often just before He showed leniency and "repented of the evil" that He had seemed about to do. When He seemed to ask for human sacrifice, it was only in order to decline it as superfluous and instead commend the faith and loyalty of His servant.

    • I have dealt with the huge matter of "Hell and Damnation" elsewhere.
    • The Flood [Gen 6-8].
      • This may have been a natural disaster and only attributed to God's initiative.
      • Of course this doesn't lessen the problem of the great evil involved, but this type of question I address elsewhere.
      • The main point of the story is in any case not the destruction of sinners (and indeed most life on Earth!) but rather the Universal Covenant that God establishes with WoMankind, through Noah and his family.
    • The destruction of Sodom and Gomorra and the death of the wife of Lot [Gen 19].
      • The destruction of the cities of the planes may have been a natural disaster, rather than an "Act of God".
      • The point of the story is to emphasize the central importance of hospitality and the potential to find the Divine in the common-place of life.
      • I suspect that the story of the salinification of Lot's wife is nothing more than a fable.
    • God's abortive murder of  Moses [Ex 4:24].
      • This is a very mysterious and garbled incident. It is impossible to make any judgement of it.
    • The plagues of Egypt, especially the Death of the Firstborn [Ex 6:28-12:32].
      • This I find very difficult to comprehend.
      • There is, to my knowledge, no notice of any such event in the Egyptian historical record.
      • From the point of view of the Hebrew tribes, all is sweetness and light. God was simply doing what was necessary to extricate them from slavery! There is nothing to explain or excuse, and everything to be thankful for.
      • This should, perhaps, be the main emphasis that is put on the story; certainly the masses of africans transported to slavery in North America took great comfort in this account of God's righteous and liberating power.
      • However, from the point of view of the general Egyptian population, the whole thing looks very different. According to Exodus, they suffered greatly and in particular very many innocent people died just because they were "firstborn". They had no political say as to the status of the Hebrew tribes. It was not by their will that the Hebrews were enslaved (assuming that in fact this is true: there is little evidence for any kind of mass slavery in the Egyptian record). Neither would it be by their will that the Hebrews would be freed. It was Pharaoh's will alone, along with that of his Ministers and the Priests of Amon-Re that would decide this.
        • It should be noted that the slaughter of the first-born was the culmination of a whole series of plagues of increasing severity. Pharaoh could have acceded to Moses' demand at any point before the end of the process, and in fact very nearly did so.
        • Perhaps the political situation wasn't quite as I have just outlined. Perhaps Pharaoh was subject to certain kinds of popular pressure. Certainly there would have been a mass outcry if all the firstborn in the land died in one night because of a political stance. After all, this would have amounted to perhaps 25-40% of the entire population! Perhaps the outcry would have amounted to a rebellion. Who knows?
        • Perhaps it wasn't every first-born in the land that died. After all, Pharaoh himself wasn't slain. Perhaps this was just the Hebrews' perception. Perhaps "the land of Egypt" should be read as "where the Hebrew were settled". Who knows?
        • In any case, the level of apparently God initiated slaughter is massive.
      • However:
        • For God to kill an innocent is not formally "murder".God gives life gratuitously, hence there is no formal grounds for complaint if He takes it gratuitously. After all, everyone dies at some point!
        • We do not know the fate beyond death of the Egyptians who died. Perhaps, like the Holy Innocents, they all went to Heaven!
      • Assuming the story not to be a fabrication, it seems to me that it can only be rationalized in terms of "the ends in view justified the extremiity of the means used".
    • The drowning of Pharaoh's army [Ex 14:23-28].
      • This is of a similar character to the slaying of the Egyptian first-born.
      • There is, to my knowledge, no notice of any such event in the Egyptian historical record.
      • It should be born in mind that this was a "them or us" situation. More accurately it was a one-sided military confrontation: between a cohort of one of the great Imperial fighting forces of its day and a disorganized rabble.
      • If God had not intervened in some way, the Hebrews would have either been slaughtered or brought back into captivity.
      • Assuming the story not to be a fabrication, it seems to me that it can only be rationalized in terms of "the ends in view justified the extremiity of the means used".
    • The death of Korah and his men and of those who objected to this [Num 16].
      • A group of rebellious levites, led by Korah, called for "a priesthood of all believers". Moses' very authority was at issue here, and that of the Aaronic priesthood too. Korah and his followers were given plenty of warning that they were overstepping the mark. In the end, an example was made of them; the earth opened up under their feet and swallowed them.
      • To modern sensibilities this sounds harsh. It certainly seemed so to the Hebrews who witnessed it. A large number objected to what they understood to have been Moses' murder of his own people. These were struck down by a plague: which Moses then successfully sought to bring to an end.
      • It is difficult to see how else the situation could have been dealt with, in the circumstances of the day. Throughout history, treason has generally attracted the death penalty; on the basis that any exercise of leniency in such situations tends to be interpreted as weakness and only foments more treason.
      • As to how much of this was God's initiative and how much Moses' is not clear. Whet is pretty certain is that both the faulting of the ground under Korah's feet and the subsequent plague were understood at the time to have resulted from God's direct agency.
    • Harsh threats to punish disobedience viciously [Deut 28:15-68; 31:16-21; 32:15-43].
      • This may all be nothing more than a graphic warning amounting to the statement that if you live unjustly, your sins will automatically result in bad outcomes which you will unavoidably suffer.
    • The death of a prophet (who was killed by a lion) for having been deceived another one [1 Kgs 13].
      • This is a sad story. The death of the first prophet seems harsh, but in fact it led to the second prophet seeing the error of his ways and both being reconciled with the first prophet - now sadly dead - and taking his message to heart.
    • God gave the Hebrews "statutes that were not good" [Ezk 20:25], commanding them to commit infanticide of their own firstborn [Ezk 20:26, cf Ex 22:29, Lev 18:21].
      • This is a difficult verse to interpret; as it is not clear what Ezekiel is referring to. The Levitical injunction to give every first born son to God on the eighth day of its life refers to circumcision coupled with the formal "redemption offering" [Ex 13:2,13-16 Lev 12:2-8 Lk 2:22-24] which from the earliest days supplanted any practice of ritual infanticide that may ever have featured in primative Hebrew ritual.
      • It may be that the "statutes" in question are not any part of the Mosaic Law. To quote my evangelical source:
        • "Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not just the doing of a thing, but the granting of permission by an agent for a thing to be done; which the agent is (mis)represented as doing."
        • "When Ezekiel says that God gave 'statutes that were not good', he means no more than that when stubborn people determined that they did not want to abide by true justice, God permitted them to follow the wicked statutes of the pagan nations around them."
        • "When Jeremiah suggested that God deceived the people of Israel, he meant only that the Lord allowed them to follow their own paths of self deceit."
    • The law to kill a witch or false prophet [Ex 22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
      • These injunctions are intended to preserve the doctrinal integrity of the faith. In those days the idea of "excommunication" had not been thought of, so the only possible penalties for apostasy or sorcery (always presumed to be malicious) were exile or execution.
    My correspondent "MS" provided a wonderful commentary on a difficult story to be found as the twenty-fourth Chapter of  the Second Book of Samuel:
    "This is a powerful little story, allegedly communicating at least six points of theological information.
      1. 'Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.' Somehow God can accuse an entire nation of displeasing Him, and is prepared to punish them all, regardless of the presumed personal innocence of many individuals in that nation. We have seen that sort of thing many times before.
      2. 'And he moved David against them...'  God inspires a king to do something offensive, which will justify God's punishing the entire people. That is analogous to the repeated hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Exodus. But here it is more bitterly ironic, because, we had been given to understand that God liked David.
        • In my view, this is all a form of speech. It is simply a poetic way of saying that David had a bad idea of his own. The text attributes to God the immediate causation, saying that God told David to take a census. More accurately, God only allowed David to have this idea and to act upon it. Possibly to make it clear that it was a bad idea.
      3. The census seems at once a sinful idea to Joab (that brilliant ethicist!) and later to David as well; but it is unclear why. Perhaps, it was interpreted as the appropriation by creatures of a prerogative that should always belong solely to the Creator. So it is a species of a sin of pride.
        • I suspect the census was a bad idea because, like the Domesday book, it gave the King a huge amount of information that he could thenuse to set taxes and military levies and check whether they were being fully met by his subjects.This was just too much power to be put in the hand of one man.
      4. God sends the prophet Gad to David, to communicate the terms of his repentance. That is a common, though not exclusive, means of getting a message across from God to a human character. Literally, in this context at least, it tends to work better than, say, a dream vision, or an angelic visitation, or the consultation of a witch.
        • The prophet only approaches David when the King has already realised that he has done wrong. Until this point there is no prospect of any kind of punishment.
      5. It is interesting that of the three options for chastisement - three months defeat in warfare, seven years of famine, and three days of pestilence - David chooses the last, with the oblique response to Gad: 'let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; and let me not fall into the hand of man.' It is unclear why pestilence should be considered the exclusively divine chastisement; perhaps it has something to do with a primitive, pre-scientific explanation for an inexplicable natural phenomenon.
        • David rightly expresses the view that it is unfair of God to punish the whole nation for his own personal offense. Nevertheless, God seems to do exactly this: seventy thousand men die!
      6. This response prepares us for the happy theological conclusion: At Gad's instigation - so presumably God is behind it - David builds an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah, and makes sacrifice: 

      7. 'And David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.'
        Those two final passive voice verbs are truly magnificent. To use the words from elsewhere in the Old Testament: 'God repented of the evil that He had considered.'
        • The fact that no punishment is in prospect until after David has repented suggests to me that the "punishment" wasn't in fact any such thing, but that it was going to happen anyway. Nevertheless, when David acted out his repentance by offering sacrifices, God acted to bring the pestilence to an end.
      I am not so terrifically embarrassed by this story. A couple of the theological items are unsatisfactory, that is true. But after we, with David, are wrung through the wringer, as it were, the story teaches one of the profound theological truths, of the sort that I (perhaps heretically) suggested we should always be on the lookout for: God can be "angered" by our sinfulness, God can "punish", but also God can be "moved to mercy" by our repentance." ["MS" (October 2005)]
    Divine holiness
    Sometimes God appears to offer intimacy and even friendship to individuals. Sometimes, even as an aspect of His reaching out to His People, He proffers a much less comfortable aspect. There is a real conflict in the Torah between on the one hand, the idea of a God who can comfortably converse and sojourn with Abraham [Gen 18], and Moses [Ex 33:11, Num 12:6-8] and even seventy sundry Hebrew notables "invited back to God's place for a dinner party"; [Ex 24:1-11] and on the other, the idea of a God who is surrounded with "The Shekinah or Cavod YHWH" and cannot be seen face-to-face but can at best grant his dear friend Moses to glimpse "his back". [Ex 33:13-23]

    This "second God" tries to become as intimate as possible with His People by establishing an Embassy (the Mercy Seat, between the Cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant) in a visible Tabernacle (and later Temple) where He will "share food" with them, via the Aaronic sacrificial system. A negative consequence of this kind of intimacy is the danger that it represents/ When God is present in this mode, so are His Energies - and these are dangerous, if not treated with due caution and respect. They are liable to break out on the unsuspecting or careless, whether or not they are guilty of any sacrilegious intent. Two of Aaron's sons found this out to their cost. [Lev 10:1-3]

    It is as if there is a normal means by which God can communicate or manifest HimSelves and then there is an extra-ordinary means that is only appropriate or possible occasionally or in exceptional circumstances. In the days of the Torah, the ordinary means were the Tabernacle and Ark, shrouded in smokes and fires; now they are the Mass and Sacraments. In the days of the Torah, the extra-ordinary means were intimate revelations and visions granted to Abraham, Jacob and Moses; now they are similar revelations and visions granted to particular individuals. Just as the Aaronic worship was dangerous, so is our sacramental worship. St Paul explicitly warns about the practical danger involved in receiving Holy Communion unworthily.

    Divine connivance with duplicity
    Examples of God appearing (sometimes implicitly) to approve of duplicity include:
    • Abraham was ordered to cast out his concubine Hagar, and son Ishmael, in favour of Sarah and Isaac. [Gen 21]
      • However, God cared for them both; and Ishmael prospered in his own right.
    • God's acceptance of Jacob, after he had tricked his elder brother Esau out of his birthright. [Gen 27-28]
      • Not enough details are given in the story to judge the rightness or wrongness of Jacob's actions.
      • It must be noted that the two brothers were eventually reconciled. [Gen 32-33]
      • I suspect that there was a lot more going on here than we are privy too.
      • The point of this story is that God will choose whomsoever He wills to forward His purposes and is not bound by issues of birthright or precedence.
      • This is shown again later in the vocation of David - the youngest of a set of brothers of an unexceptional family - to the Kingship of Israel.
    • The story of the young widow "Tamar" who disguised herself as a whore so that she might have sex with her father in law, Judah, who was refusing to let her marry his youngest son, Shelah, her brother-in-law who should have been constrained to give her sons so that the name of her late husband, Er, would be preserved [Gen 38:6-26].
      • This story is mainly about a woman cleverly obtaining justice for herself in spite of the unwillingness of various men (i.e. Judah and his sons Onan and Shelah) to do right by her.
      • Apart from the unconventional sexual morals it features, I don't find this story difficult. Certainly I do not find it "very unedifying" as does my corespondent "B".
    Divine connivance with murder
    Examples of God appearing (sometimes only implicitly) to approve of murder include:
    • Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen 22].
    • Moses' killing of the Egyptian overseer [Ex 2:1-5].
      • This was provoked and was, in effect, the defence of an innocent third party.
    • The murder of Sisera, the general of a Canaanite army with a tent peg [Jdgs 4,5] by Jael in the days of Deborah the prophetess and ruling Judge of Israel.
      • The Bible contains no explicit divine approval of the actions of Jael.
      • This was an action of war.
    • The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter [Jdgs 11:29-40].
      • This was a great act of folly on the part of Jephthah.
      • The Bible never expresses any approval of either the vow he made or of the fact that he fulfilled it.
      • The main point of the story is that one shouldn't make [reckless] vows!
    • The story of Israel's slaughtering all of the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin in revenge for the murder of a Levite's concubine and then Israel's kidnapping hebrew virgins from other tribes so that the few Benjaminite men remaining might have wives and so continue their tribe.
      • This is a terrible story of one bad deed leading to another.
      • It starts with an apparent desire on the part of a group of Benjaminites to rape a male Levite, passing through their city of Gibeah! [Jdgs 19:22]
      • To avoid this fate, the Levite gives his concubine up to be raped! [Jdgs 19:25]
      • The Benjaminites rape her until she dies! [Jdgs 19:28]
      • The rest of Israel then determines to destroy the tribe of Benjamin; in vengeance for the murder, apparently with God's explicit approval [Jdgs 20:23,28] - though exactly how this was manifested is not made clear.
        • I suspect that "God's approval" was no more than the "say so" of some priest.
      • When the genocide is complete, all the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin are dead and only six hundred men remained. Then the Israelites regret their actions. [Jdgs 21:1-4]
      • They proceeded to "make amends" by kidnapping the virginal women of Jabesh-gilead after having murdered all the [Hebrew!] menfolk of that town, and their wives and children. [Jdgs 21:8-14]
      • It transpired that still more women were required, so a second batch were abducted from the town of Shiloh. [Jdgs 21:16-23]
      • The story is completed by the significant remark: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes." [Jdgs 21:25]
      • I suppose the main messages of this story are:
        • Without a King, you have mob rule.
        • Especially when people start to say that they know what is God's will!
        • Don't justify your own actions by claiming that what you decide to do is God's will.
        • Don't make vows.
        • Don't rape people.
        • Don't commit murder.
        • Don't take vengeance.
    Commentry on the Un-Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham
    This story cannot and must not be understood in the standard and obvious way; but there again, I do not believe that the Torah is mean to be so understood - any more than much of what Plato wrote was intended by him to be taken in a direct sense. The Torah is God's "teaching aid".  I think that many of the stories included within it are put there to challenge one's moral and religious sentiments. Indeed, some are put there to provoke outrage - as signs of contradiction. If one "goes along" with the simple interpretation one shows that one has failed and not understood the lesson.

    The story of "The Unsacrifice of Isaac" seems to start with a lie on the part of God, who seems to say that Isaac is Abraham's "only son". This is simply not true, as Abraham had an older son, Ishmael, who he was very fond of and who Abraham only sent away (along with Hagar his mother) because Sarah was jealous of him and because, finally, God told him to do so. Subsequently, God took great and special care of Hagar and Ishmael. We must first ask, therefore, was it really God who was speaking to Abraham at this point? God does not lie and Abraham wouldn't be so silly as to think that God would say such an obvious untruth. Are we so confident that God doesn't lie? If so, why do we happily accept this statement at face-value? Perhaps Satan spoke to Abraham, pretending to be God - but I don't think that it is necessary to pursue this train of thought, because in "Young's Literal Translation" God's instruction runs: "Take, I pray thee, thy son, thine only one, whom thou hast loved, even Isaac, and go for thyself unto the land of Moriah, and cause him to ascend there for a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I speak unto thee." [Gen 22:2], so nothing untrue is actually said! The phrase "thine only one" might easily have colooquiolly meant "thine sole heir". Why, then, do translaters of this text generally render it as a lie?

    Moreover,, according to Youngs Literal Translation, it would seem that God doesn't even directly command that Isaac be offered as a sacrifice, and certainly not that he be killed! A circumlocution is used: "cause him to ascend there for a burnt-offering";  which was actually what happened! Isaac did ascend the mountain and a burnt-offering was made, which he attended and helped officiate at. The standard interpretation is, perhaps, the obvious meaning of these words; but the words do not by any means demand to be so interpreted! After all, Abraham himself says half way through the story that: "God will provide the sacrifice"  [Gen 22:8] and in fact is proved correct. Abraham had good reason to expect this. God had promised to make his progeny - through Isaac - a great nation [Gen 21:12]. Hence, I think that Abraham's words (that God would provide) were a prophecy; not just "wishful thinking" or a tactic to pacify Isaac. Abraham always knew what was going to happen, more or less. He was profoundly intimate with God and very comfortable with the idea of arguing with God. Isaac did not know what was going to happen, on the other hand; and yet still went along with the whole thing.

    Only the statement of "The angel of the Lord" in [Gen22:12 & 16] seems to explicitly corroborate the standard interpretation of the story: that Abraham was actually asked by God to offer human sacrifice and that Abraham actually intended to do so - out of a sense of obedience. God is presented as saying that he will bless Abraham because he didn't withhold Isaac from him; but God had already promised to bless Abraham and had explicitly made the form of this blessing depend personally on Isaac, so this cannot be taken at face value. The key phrase is "not withheld thy son" - and again, clearly in the action, Abraham has behaved exacty as the "Angel" has stated. He did not "withhold" Isaac; but neither did he kill him! Abraham acted with implicit trust in God, but I say with clear knowledge that he would not lose his son to death at this point in time. There was never any possibility of Isaac permanently dying at this stage, and Abraham knew this - because of God's promise [Gen 21:12]. He didn't know how far he would have to go with the sacrificial action, though. It might, in principle, have involved death and resurrection - if Abraham was capable of conceiving of such a turn of events, which I seriously doubt! 

    Why did Abraham bind Isaac and lie him on the makeshift altar of sacrifice, if he was never asked by God to do so? On one level, we will never know. We can speculate that Abraham himself concluded that this must have been God's intent, given the lack of any divinely provided sacrificial victim; but this is somewhat strange, as there is no account of Abraham waiting to see of God would provide a victim, or of Abraham beseaching God to do so. Also, there is no record of Isaac putting up any resistence to his aged father's actions. It is implausible that a young man in the prime of his life would be easily overpowered by his elderly father after the pair of them had just climed a steep hill and built a sacrificial altar! Perhaps Abraham and Isaac were playing-out a ritual that was familiar to their culture. After all, in the law of Moses it was later to be stated that all first-born males were sacred to God and had to be redeemed.

    If God was not the direct instigater of the incident, but the whole affair was orchestrated by God's Agent, then clearly it would have been the same "Satan" that "tested" Job. As to whether this "Satan" is our "Devil", I claim no clear knowledge of the Heavenly or Hellish hierarchies. The deeper questions are:

    1. what does "testing" mean and
    2. how or why should an all-knowing God want or need to "find out" whether Abraham would do as he was (unjustly) ordered to do? 
    The most that Abraham could have been "tested" over is his belief that God would honour his promise; and this wasn't even a two-sided covenant, it was rather a one-sided extravagant undertaking of one friend (God) for another (Abraham). God already knew that Abraham was his friend, and so did Abraham. The Epiphany of Mamre shows this more clearly than anything. God has no need to "test" people like this, though sometimes God does act so as to help his friends to discover or develop the level of their own commitment to justice.

    Many times the faith of the Jews (and ours too) has been and will be "tested"; where God seems to ask from us the utterly unreasonable - with no hope of explanation or good outcome. The Jews suffered slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon and dispersion throughout the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust and the Russion Gulags. I have suffered my "little Calvaries" over my beloved PJH and various other matters.

    Catholics understand that the whole "Unsacrifice of Isaac" episode was a prophecy-in-action of the willing self offering that our Blessed Lord (the Son of God, not just the son of God's best friend) would go through with. Perhaps God explained this fact to Abraham afterwards. If so, this is not recorded. "The Unsacrifice of Isaac" is, moreover, the model of each of our lives. We must offer our mortal lives to God in the absolute confidence that God will restore them to us; but also add onto them length of days unto eternity.

    My account of this story happens to conform exactly to its "literal terms". [Incidentally, very little "literature" is meant to be taken "literally"!] It is only the matter of "God's intention" that I am questioning. I think that how the Torah and other parts of the Old Testament represent "God's intention" is often seriously questionable and should be understood not as "objective fact about God" but as a "starting point for reflection". 

    Divine toleration of slavery
    It is far from obvious that all forms of slavery are wrong, even though pope John Paul II did condemn slavery as "intrinsically evil". No Old Testament writer ever questions the principle of slavery. Neither, as far as we have it, did Jesus or any of the Apostles. Neither did Plato or Aristotle or any Father of the Church for almost two millennia. On the other hand, many authorities - certainly the Torah [Ex 21:26-27] - set clear limits on the conduct of masters towards their slaves. I have written further on this matter elsewhere.
    Divine condemnation of usury
    It is far from clear why usury was ever condemned in Hebrew culture. I presume because - in the absence of formal investment opportunities - spare cash was just that: spare, surplus and without purpose or application, and to seek to make a gain on it by exploiting those in need was rightly perceived to be wicked. I have written further on this matter elsewhere.
    Divine militarism
    The modern Catholic (such as the author!) has a profound aversion to the idea of warfare. After the horrors of two World Wars, this is understandable. However, it is a sad fact of our fallen world that sometimes warfare is inevitable and that sometimes it is wrong and sinful to avoid war. For example, the failure of the United Nations to intervene militarily to prevent the Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda genocides and in order to depose the tyrant Mugabe is deeply shameful.

    Historically, the Church has had no difficulty in believing that - at least in extremis - God intervenes in military affairs. The battles of Lepanto and Vienna, for example; where the forces of Christendom at last halted the inexorable advance of the Islamic navy and army. Every time that the Church cries out "Sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth!" she names God as "The Lord of Hosts", most plausibly an invocation of God as Commander in Chief of the Hebrew Army.

    The Hebrews had a need for military success if they were going to be established as God's Chosen People. All the tribes and nations of the time behaved - more or less - in the way that the Hebrews are represented as behaving. It was a question of either fighting to gain and defend territory or die. There was no United Nations. Whether God supported Israel's military ventures or not: they would have to go ahead, if Israel was to be established as a state. The brutality and violence represented by Israel's military campaign was simply inevitable. If Israel hadn't conducted a successful military campaign, some other conflicts would have taken place; with some other outcome. In the end, Israel was defeated: by Assyria then Babylonia, only to be re-established as a buffer-state by the Persian Empire and then incorporated in first the Macedonian and then Roman Empires (with the brief Maccabean interlude) before being dispersed throughout the world for nineteen centuries.

    One should bear in mind that death is not such a terrible fate. After all, it awaits each and every one of us. What is much more important is what fate awaits us after death! The death in battle of Canaanite warriors at the hands of Hebrew insurgents isn't so absolutely terrible. The fact that God may have enjoined His People to execute war on the Baal worshiping inhabitants of the Promised Land of Palestine isn't utterly horrible. However, the fact that so many non-combatants were exterminated - even when the Jews were inclined to spare their lives - does seem wrong. Today we would call this genocide and especially condemn this because it might result in the death not just of individuals but of a whole culture. Of course, this was exactly the outcome that was (apparently) envisaged by God: in order that the Jews would not come under the influence of Baalistic practices and revert to polytheism - which they regularly did.

    Conclusion

    In the end, I don't think that there are any entirely satisfactory answers to the entirely proper questions that my correspondent "B" poses. I can only suggest that, contrary to the well established official teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, much of the Old Testament is not to be taken at face value. Frequently, what is posited as of God is in fact an expression of what the author or the people (s)he is writing about thought about God. I don't think that this devalues the Old Testament at all. It is simply a fact that one has to take account of when reading it. Similar considerations apply to the New Testament, but not to quite the same degree and not in quite the same way.

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