Matt Flannagan on an Hyperbolic Literal reading of the Old Testament

In response, I want to suggest that this strict, literal reading is mistaken. Reading these texts in isolation from the narrative in which they occur risks a distortion of the authors intended meaning…

…In response, I want to suggest that this strict, literal reading is mistaken. Reading these texts in isolation from the narrative in which they occur risks a distortion of the authors intended meaning….Consequently, if one does not read the texts in isolation and is sensitive to the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern writings then a literal reading is far from obvious. As Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier notes, such a reading commits “the fallacy of misplaced literalism … the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.” This underscores an obvious but often neglected point, the bible is not written in accord with the conventions of 21st century English. It was written in ancient foreign languages and in the conventions that governed historical, legal, epic, etc writings of that time. To understand what it teaches accurately one needs to ask what it teaches given these factors. When one does this, it seems probably that the Old Testament does not teach that God commanded or that Israel carried out, the genocide or extermination of the Canaanites.

Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

Just a quibble here – while we are currently in the 21st century, only by about 9 years, the extreme literal reading of texts have been around a bit longer…

Matt is setting the ancients texts well within their original audience structure, that of the Ancient Near East. Granted, to some, this is a blasphemous concept, as the Scriptures are completely different from ANE texts; while others, rightly I believe, understand that the authors were reaching ANE peoples, using their own culture to deliver God’s message. While I believe it is safe to say that the ancient writers used the ANE backdrop in writing, I don’t want you to get me wrong. There is still something very essentially divine in the Scriptures, at least according to my religious faith.

I would encourage you to read Matt’s article, and while some may still see problems with the way God’s people acted in the past, I think that these things much be taken within theological context, in that things have changed.

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

5 thoughts on “Matt Flannagan on an Hyperbolic Literal reading of the Old Testament

  1. Thanks for the mention.

    My problem is not with what God's people have done (we have plenty to answer for since the Conquest!), but with what they are ostensibly expressly commanded to do by God. As I said in my post, granting Flannagan's argument is a necessary but, on its own, woefully inadequate step in justifying the horrors of war as depicted in the Old Testament. I'd need to hear convincing arguments about what exactly so radically changed in the theological context that wars of aggression and violent removal of indigenous peoples could be something demanded by God Himself rather than merely tolerated from an immature and morally benighted people.

  2. Steve, what of human evolution and progression (societal) in which war was sometimes needed? Of could it be that like the judge who sacrifice his daughter, humanity sometimes acted in the name of God, with God sanctioning it for a while? Augustine didn't develop a just war theology until long afterward, I note.

    I do believe that Matt's analysis of hyperbolic ANE tendencies do tend to cast things in a better light. Israel's mission was to carve out land for itself where the One God could be worship. This had to be done in an undemocratic manner.

  3. Their acting in the name of God is exactly what I envisage, but not God's
    sanction per se. But the societal evolution argument works both ways:
    Rwanda, Serbia, and even Nazi Germany are not vindicated merely because an
    immoral society permitted their actions. If we believe in necessary wars of
    aggression whenever expedient to some theological means, we cannot so easily
    castigate the Christian-fueled neo-cons' agenda of wars to defeat
    anti-Christian governments and uncritical support of Israel.

  4. I would enter into the foray over at Matt's blog, but things have gotten ridiculous in the comments section. I essentially agree with Steve in one sense, that Matt is seeking too much in his argument. Of course, understanding the texts as hyperbole helps tone down the commands a bit, but from the very get go it assumes too much historical accuracy on the part of the texts (IMHO). It's not history, it's historiography.

    In addition, the problem is not simply the violence in the texts, but the violence that these texts have been used to legitimate throughout history (i.e. America is the promised land and the Native Americans are the Canaanites just to name one horrific example). It brings up a serious question for whether these texts are inerrant as many moderns use the term – cannot lead one into error.

Leave a Reply, Please!