How Christians read the Old Testament has always been a matter of some controversy. Not, however, until the rise of fundamentalism have moral questions about Old Testament the stories of genocide been particularly pressing. Contrary to what one finds in the more brutish anti-religious polemics, it is not the case that Christians have always read the Bible as the straightforward documentation of facts about the past, only retreating in modernity to metaphorical and spiritual readings in modern times.
Fundamentalism, however, is a demonstrably modern phenomenon; whereas sophisticated spiritual, typological, and metaphorical readings of Scripture stretch back to the beginnings of Christian exegesis. In considering how we should read the “hard passages” of the Old Testament, less literal approaches are often the more traditional.
Peter Leithart and Fundamentalism
Some time ago, Peter Leithart took issue with David Bentley Hart's new book, The Experience of God, where Hart described fundamentalists as "soft and inviting targets" for atheist polemic. Leithart argues that the fundamentalist reading is not as unique as Hart suggests, and he adduces passages from Augustine in which the saint speculates on the dimensions of Noah's ark, insisted on the corporeality of paradise, and attempted to calculate the years between Adam and the flood. Yet this does not negate Augustine's entreaty elsewhere that
If anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures.
I take the fundamentalist about spiritual readings of Scripture to run along the following lines. When the reader approaches Scripture, the more independent elements or principles an interpretation introduces, the greater the risk that the reader inscribes his own ideas over those conveyed in the text. The more one appeals to the various apparatuses of historical or genre criticism, to mystical experience or philosophical insights, the more the interpretation alloys the infallible work of God with the fallible work of human beings.
Aggravating this worry is the celerity with which ancient exegetes such as Origin or Gregory of Nyssa discard the literal sense of many cruelties recounted in the Old Testament. We might dislike the slaughter of infants, but to opt for our moral sensibilities over the apparent sense of, say, I Samuel 15, seems to be an obvious instance where we have substituted our own judgment for God's.
The motive behind the fundamentalist reading is without a doubt noble, even courageous: one wishes to be faithful to God despite one's own misgivings and the derision of others.
The Problem With Fundamentalism
The fundamentalist has it exactly backward. It is the fundamentalist who depends on abstract principles foreign to the Scriptures, while the Patristic dismissals of divine infanticide are grounded in God’s revelation of himself.
The fundamentalist reading of Scripture is governed by a set of abstract principles found nowhere in Scripture. For example, "the Bible should be interpreted in its literal sense unless context mandates otherwise." Or, "the clear meaning of Scripture is evident to the common reader (i.e., without the magisterium)." Or again "the vague passages of Scripture should be explained by clear ones." Such principles govern how the Bible is taken to be true.
A commitment to a certain rationalism forms the heart of fundamentalist exegetics. This rationalism dictates the senses in which Scripture is taken as true. Truth is first and foremost a straightforward correspondence between the apparent sense of the text of Scripture and objective historical events. Correspondence between text and event is regarded as the primary form of truthfulness—Truth per se. One wonders how, on this view, Christ's claim to be the Truth can be anything more than metaphor.
Rationalistic principles (e.g., the clarity of Scripture or historical correspondence) present themselves as truth in the primary sense, displacing Christ. The fundamentalist reading does precisely what it reviles: elevates notions of finite human beings over God's own Word.
Consider the ban on the Amalekites. I Samuel recounts that the Lord ordered their extermination, including infants, children, and women. On what I have called the fundamentalist reading, the faithful should understand this to mean that God ordered genocide.
Let us imagine that, on Jesus’ retreat into Judea when he instructed the disciples to allow the little children to come to him, he discovered one of the children to be an Amelikite and repeated his command: “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Why is this unimaginable? Why is it obscene to imagine Jesus ordering infanticide during his sojourn on earth?
If the fundamentalist reading is right, then the Lord did not order the murder of Amelikite children on his retreat into Judea (perhaps in part because the descendants of Amelek did not survive the massacres centuries earlier.) But it cannot be denied that the Lord really does order the murder of helpless children—he just did not do so on that particular retreat into Judea.
Christ the Cipher
Ancient exegetes such as St. Gregory of Nyssa dismissed such passages, because their reading of Scripture is grounded by the Word incarnate. It is Christ in the flesh who reveals God. And it is Christ who is the truth, Truth itself to which all other truths are mere shadows. The literal sense of these passages can be dismissed, because they are inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Understanding the Scriptures, then, involves the doubled movement of the revealing of Jesus Christ and Christ's own revelation of the meaning of Scripture. The human reader plays only a secondary role. The revealing of truth happens primarily as God's activity.
Contrast St. Gregory's approach to the Old Testament stories of infanticide with the fundamentalist approach. What precisely is it that reveals to us how this passage should be taken? For the fundamentalist, abstract principles such as Scriptural clarity or historical correspondence govern how these should be understood. For St. Gregory of Nyssa, Jesus Christ himself is the ground for the meaning of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the cipher and the ciphering. If we wish to know whether it is possible for God to kill children, we should look directly to God incarnate, who does not kill children but calls them--all of them--to himself and his kingdom.
There is a wonderful story about Thomas F. Torrance's consoling a young soldier who was mortally wounded during World War II. The soldier asked Torrance if God was really like Jesus. Torrance assured him that God is just like Jesus.
No menacing divinity lurks behind Jesus' back; we can be free from the Marcionite God. It is Christ who reveals the Father and illuminates the Scriptures, not interpretative principles of our own creation. We can confidently say that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not genocidal—for it apparently needs to be said.