April 21, 2015
Academy of Parish Clergy (APC) Awards
Reference Book of the Year
I am so very honored to be here with all of you to receive this award. I’m still pinching myself that this theologian actually wrote a commentary on Deuteronomy and to be honored for doing so is reason to pinch myself even more.
As many of you know, scholars are encouraged to have clear research trajectories where each scholarly project builds on the previous one. My scholarly path continues to resist such logical progression. Because of my participation in several working groups, I get invited to contribute to others’ projects. Rather than viewing these invitations as disruptions of my own attempts at a seamless trajectory of scholarship, I’ve come to embrace them as nudgings of the Spirit to grow and be stretched in unexpected ways.
Which brings me to how I came to write a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy. Several religious presses have recently recruited theologians to do what it is we used to do—that is, write commentary on scripture. This recruitment of theologians to do scriptural interpretation is not a knock on biblical scholars. The move is rather an acknowledgement that the split over the last 150 years between biblical studies and theology sometimes encourages an artificial distance between the two. Westminster John Knox is among the presses creating a new series of biblical commentaries written by theologians, drawing of course on current biblical scholarship while focusing on the theological themes raised in scripture.
About seven years ago I received a letter from one of the series editors inviting me to participate in the WJK series. She and I are part of a Constructive Theological Workgroup that collaborates on a host of projects, and our work there served as the basis for my invitation. I was really honored to be asked to join a stellar list of scholars (Stephanie Paulsell, Willie James Jennings, Don Saliers). But the letter was not just a general invitation to participate; it invited me to write the commentary on Deuteronomy. I have to admit that even as I was honored to be asked, the book chosen for me gave me pause: Deuteronomy? Romans, perhaps, but Deuteronomy? I wasn’t so sure.
I sat with the decision for a couple months. Writing a 100,000 word commentary on the book of Deuteronomy was not at all within the realm of any scholarly trajectory for this Lutheran feminist scholar. But I respected the series’ goals and collection of theologians. I was encouraged by the editor at WJK. I felt nudged once again by the Spirit to accept an offer to dive into a biblical book that I didn’t grow up reading and frankly knew too little about. I accepted the invitation and dove in.
Writing a commentary on Deuteronomy has confirmed what I’ve thought was the case after teaching theology in the academy and the church for almost twenty years: that the majority of Christians are Marcionites. Those of you who know your church history know I’m saying that most followers of Jesus also follow Marcion, a second century Christian bishop who concluded that the Creator God of the Old Testament was other than (and inferior to) the loving, merciful God made known in Jesus Christ. Armed with this conviction, Marcion called for the separation of Christianity and its scriptures from all things Jewish. For Marcion it was imperative Christians understand the lawgiver God of the Old Testament as utterly distinct from the New Testament God of love.
Perhaps you spend time communicating this same newsflash to people in your congregations as I do to students in the church and the academy: the ancient church ruled against Marcion and his belief in separate gods and separate scriptures for Christians and Jews. Marcion was deemed a heretic, the church emphasizing instead Christianity’s dependence on Judaism, that the Old Testament is indeed the church’s book as well and that the God of the Ten Commandments is the same God incarnate in the Word made flesh.
Despite the church’s official denunciation of Marcion’s position, the history of Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is littered with Marcion-like treatments of the Old Testament God and the biblical books of the law. From ancient Christian allegorical readings of the Old Testament that ignore the importance of the law for Jews and Christians to the Lectionary cycle that bypasses almost all Old Testament legal sections, it’s not surprising that Marcion’s views are still very much in vogue.
Enter Deuteronomy, the quintessential Old Testament book of the law. As if the book’s focus on law were not reason enough for Christians to sidestep the text, Deuteronomy also teems with references to a warrior-like God. What, then, are Christians to do with such a book, where many of the laws are seen as irrelevant to our contemporary context and many of its images of God make us squirm? It’s tempting to simply agree with Marcion that this book should be left to our Jewish neighbors while we head for the greener pastures of the New Testament.
In light of this reality, I worked in my commentary to craft a theological exploration of Deuteronomy that employs Protestant understandings of law and gospel while also affirming not only the wisdom of Jewish interpretations of the law but also glimpses of gospel that come through Jewish as well as Christian interpretations of the text.
Reading Walter Brueggeman early on in this commentary process was critical to helping me better understand what it would look like to counter this latent Marcionism in contemporary Christianity. In his Theology of the Old Testament, Brueggeman writes,
It is not usual, or easy, for a Christian theological reading of the Old Testament to honor or host the openness and unsettled quality of the text. I suspect, in any case, that it is the overriding of this playful, open rhetoric, rather than a Christological claim, that constitutes the most elemental and characteristic practice of Christian supersessionism. It is not only a preemption of the substantive claims of the text, but also a preemption of the style and mode of the text that invite a distorted reading.
From my most preliminary readings of the Deuteronomy text, its unsettled quality was one of its most insistent characteristics. The God of Deuteronomy is, as Daniel Berrigan has claimed, “a God who plays favorites—those favored by no one.” In Deut. 31.12, for instance, the people of Israel are not just called on to be hospitable to the strangers in their midst, but to treat the strangers among them as integral members of the community.
Just as we settle in to the images of God as the One who lavishes care on those at the farthest edges of society, the deuteronomist interjects the deeply unsettling image of God as Divine Warrior, calling on Israel in chapter 7 to utterly destroy the various tribes who inhabit Canaan, and “show them no mercy.”
In response to this text of terror, we can cite scholars who suggest that the metaphors of divine warrior are intended by the deuteronomistic writer to be more evocative than descriptive of God’s character, that the metaphor of the divine warrior is just one among many used within Deuteronomy’s text, that God is also imaged as a parent, an eagle, and a shepherd as well as a warrior. While such clarifications are important to note, I kept Brueggeman’s claims in mind and resisted the approach often taken by progressive theologians like myself: to ignore, discount, or bypass these terrifying texts. It IS important to contextualize these passages, recognizing that it was a vicious time and that such passages reflect vicious realities.
In order to preserve the open-ended, unsettled quality of the text, however, it seems we must claim that the God of Deuteronomy—indeed the God of the Bible in its entirety—is irreducibly compassionate and wrathful, just and vengeful, loving and destructive toward God’s own creation. If we take the book of Deuteornomy seriously, there’s no getting around the wrath of God theologically.
But along with the acknowledgement that wrath is an aspect of God’s nature, there’s other things we must also say. First, God’s wrath should not be seen as wholly problematic. As liberation theologians have taught us, a God without wrath does not plan to do much liberating. Indeed, that God’s anger is kindled when harm is done to the least among us not only gives us hope that earthly injustices don’t have the last word but also insight into God’s compassionate nature. Second, another insight from Brueggeman: that the text reports God as saying “vengeance is mine” implies that it is not ours. Even in the midst of disquieting portraits of God in Deuteronomy, the text is unequivocal: vengeance is not to be Israel’s. From the specified number of lashes—and no more—as appropriate punishment to fit the crime (25.2-3) to Israel’s reported victories over other tribes, we glimpse calls for restraint amid the harshness. No license is given to extravagant punishment, no validation of racial or ethnic superiority on Israel’s part. The text repeatedly insists that it’s not up to Israel to decide whom or when to fight—that decision is God’s alone.
There is no easy resolution to the multiple portraits of the God of Deuteronomy. In the end, after all the curses and stories of God’s wrath being visited on Israel and others, Deuteronomy concludes with passages that assert that the scales are tipped, however slightly, to life, to mercy, to grace. This concluding book of the torah ends poignantly with the story of the death of Moses, a man whose life and death carry deep resonance not only for people of the book but also in our literary and historical imaginations. Even as the text calls Moses a prophet without peers “whom the Lord knew face to face,” the story ends with the unsettling reality that this amazing leader of Israel does not make it into the promised land. Throughout the book, the deuteronomist sometimes offers a reason for Moses’ death outside the land (Moses’ or the peoples’ disobedience, for instance), sometimes not. How do we resist resolution of these persistent tensions? 20th century writer Franz Kafka offers a possible way forward: “Moses is on track to Canaan all of his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life . . . . Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life” (Kafka, Diaries 1914-1923, 195-6).
What permeates the final section of the book is the ongoing tension between the call to human obedience of God’s commands and the promise that God will give the gift of life as well as the gift of obedience. That life—and obedience—are finally in God’s hands means that life is first and last a gift, that the land promised the chosen people is a gift, that God stands with a little band of unknowns based on no merit of their own, and with the alien, the widow and the orphan who are all beloved in the eyes of God.
According to Deuteronomy, obedience by the people of God can’t by itself bring about God’s promised future—indeed, Deut. 30.6 affirms that God will create a change in human hearts—nevertheless, the words and laws of Deuteronomy demonstrate that at the same time, it does matter how we live. The people of God are called to faithfully follow the will of God—and when they don’t, it can feel like a curse. In the end, though, they are summoned to choose life, to choose God.
Thank you again for this award. I am also indebted to Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Rabbi Esther Adler, and their weekly torah study sessions that I attended when they studied Deuteronomy; to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, my home parish, where I taught multiple sessions on the book of Deuteronomy and where friends said, “I never knew Deuteronomy contains everything we need to know as Christians” and another who said after the second session in December, “I only have two things on my calendar for the new year—the opera and Deuteronomy.” I think it’s fabulous that the APC lifts up reference work done on the Bible, for we need more ways to engage our churches in study of scripture and its continued power to shape our lives.
Thank you so very much.