When I was in high school, I believe it was the 10th grade, a group of friends and I bleached our hair on the third to last day of the school year.

For the sake of context, it’s important to note that we attended a private Christian high school with a moderately strict dress code.

It’s important to note that at the school year’s midway point, the school board has controversially moved to allow male students to bleach their hair, a practice that had formerly been forbidden.

And it is additionally and most essentially worth noting that, at the time, it was quite acceptable for young men to bleach their hair. Trail blazers like Justin Timberlake, Mark McGrath, and the dudes in L.F.O. had made sure of it.

Now, despite the caveats duly noted above, the school faculty reacted, we’ll call it poorly, to our wake boarding-culture inspired fashion statement.

We were immediately placed into in-school suspension, missed a few of our final exams, and were forced to apologize in front of the entire student body.

To this day, being made to agree to that apology feels like an injustice.

And to be clear, I maintain that we did nothing wrong and had acted within the boundaries of the school’s dress code according to the aforementioned revisions.

But, at the time, there was a great deal of confusing, misremembering, and posturing over exactly what had been agreed up and allowed, as well as how and when those allowances would be implemented.

In a weird way, I actually think my silly hair story is a little like how I believe the Bible often works, especially when it comes to some of the most controversial texts in scripture, those that appear to describe divinely sanctioned violence and genocide.

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Much ink has been spilled discussing and debating how Christians are to read these violent biblical passages.

And here I have in mind especially those stories in Joshua and Judges that presume to recount the conquest of Canaan at the hands of the Israelites. But similar narratives appear in the Pentateuch (the Bible’s first five books) as well as the later historical books (the Samuels, the Kings, and the Chronicles).

While plenty of Christians are happy to shrug their shoulders and either assume God allows for violence in some situations and/or argue that Israel, as God’s instrument, was good and right in their conquests, many Christians (myself included) simply cannot reconcile these violent portrayals with the God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament.

And no imaginative reading of the book of Revelation can serve to lessen our concern.

Later discussions on this blog will certainly revisit many of these debates as I recon with the question of Christianity and violence in our own time and what ethical demands the gospel lays upon the lives of Christians.

But here I simply want to look at the violence in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, in relation to the way I read and interpret the Bible more broadly.

Many of the more compelling explanations for the Old Testament’s violence include seeing the narratives as theological and/or political embellishments meant to highlight Israel’s relationship to the land and/or the religion practices of their neighbors.

Other possibilities argue that the stories of violence are later allegories written – or at least redacted (verbediting multiple source texts and combining them, altered slightly, to make a single document) to make sense of Israel’s exile in Babylon.

But there is another explanation, perfectly compatible those mentioned above, that I want to discuss in greater detail.

And that’s the view that the Bible is, often, intentionally contradictory – even to the point of correcting itself – because, as Jewish Scholar Benjamin Sommer (by way of Peter Enns) notes, the Bible, “conveys God’s will but also reflects Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will” [1]. Sommer adds, “revelation involved active contributions by both God and Israel; revelation was collaborative and participatory” [2].

This idea that the revelation in scripture is a collaborative and participatory process is not unlike my own view of revelation, which I will further elaborate later this week. But it’s also similar to the words of Anglican scholar Rowan Williams who I will quote at length (with another shoutout to Enns who directed me to this passage/book and who provides the bolded emphasis below):

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“The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables.

God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made . . . Where are you in this?’

If in that story we find accounts of the responses of Israel to God that are shocking or hard to accept, we do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.

For example: many of the early Israelites in the Old Testament clearly thought it was God’s will that they should engage in ‘ethnic cleansing’—that they should slaughter without mercy the inhabitants of the Promised Land into which they had been led. And for centuries, millennia even, people have asked, ‘Does that mean that God orders or approves of genocide?’ If he did, that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole seems to say about God.

But if we understand that response as simply part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at that time. The point is to look at God, look at yourself, and to ask where you are in the story. Are you capable in the light of the Bible as a whole—of responding more lovingly or faithfully than ancient Israel [3].

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Here we are reminded of my adolescent dispute over hair color in that the interpretation of an event cannot be identified with the event itself.

Sometimes that interpretation is flawed or incomplete. Sometimes people misremember details or emphasize a particular set of details, necessitating a counter or complimentary perspective.

Other times it is accurate but only insofar as it reflects the cultural expectations, signs, and symbols of its time and therefore must be translated anew in foreign and/or later contexts.

What I want to emphasize here is that God’s self-revelation is something that exists outside and beyond the text of scripture.

It’s something that confronts us, interrupts us, calls us forth, beyond and outside of ourselves. It demands we bear witness to it; but we can never grasp it.

Just as Moses on Sinai could only see where God had been after God had passed by, so too we can only see, by faith, where revelation has occurred. It is never ours to wield, but ever breaking in anew, just as Jesus himself describes in his depiction of the Spirit’s work in John 3.

Again, I’ll elaborate on all of this further as the week goes on. For now I want to toss out a preliminary definition of scripture by saying the Bible bears witness to divine revelation. There is as much significance in what this definition does not say as there is in what it says.

Through this lens we can calm our anxiety over the parts of the Bible that err or offend, as our own witness often does just that. But at the same time we can continue hold the text of the Bible in high esteem, knowing that the rupture of God’s Word, it’s transformative and saving power, is often in the offense itself, and that through it God is still confronting us, beckoning us to come, wrestle, push back, participate, and hear again the voice of the God who speaks.

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I *think* we are nearly the end of this series of posts on the nature of scripture. In the next post I will discuss the question of myth. Are parts of the Bible mythical? If so, how does that relate to their inspiration and authority?

After that, and conclusively, I will better articulate the definition of scripture I alluded to above. In doing so I hope to demonstrate that we can retain the revelatory power and authority of scripture without clinging to the doctrine of inerrancy, by instead trusting in the interruptive voice of the Spirit of God to speak through the text, but always still beyond it, and on into our present situation.

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[1] Sommer, Benjamin D. 2015. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. Yale University Press. Page 2.

[2] Sommer, Benjamin D. 2015. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. Yale University Press. Page 1.

[3] Williams, Rowan. 2014. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Eerdmans. Page(s) 27-28.