6 Sep 2017

Bad Theology, Bad Hermeneutic: Together like a Horse and Carriage (Some Reflections on Rediscovering God)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apologetics, Bible, Bobby's World, Christian hope, Discipleship, Exegesis, Faith, Grace, Holding On, Journey, Love, Ministry, Patternism, Personal, Precision Obedience

What comes first? Theology or hermeneutic? This is the old chicken or the egg conundrum. There is an undeniable symbiotic relationship between them, existing in relation like the sides of a ring. Hermeneutic informs theology. Theology informs hermeneutic.

Bad hermeneutic leads to atrocious theology.

Horrible theology reinforces appalling hermeneutics.

And we cannot forget the impact of our social setting on both. Let me tell you what my divorce taught me about God. It is more important to have a good theology, theology will in the end impact everything about “me” … who I am and what I do.

Theology transforms us into a living and breathing hermeneutic.

Technical god Heresy

Some people believe in a Technical God. For these people the occasional terrifying story in the Bible is central to forming their doctrine of God.  They stress how this technical deity demands nothing less than absolute precision obedience in our response to him in order to be saved. Noah’s ark, Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah and Moses striking the rock all show just how technical this god can be. Like the Pharisee of old this god literally counts nine grains of dill and one measuring the offering with precision. For them the entire “relationship” with deity is conceived of in terms of “law” (people often mean by “law” something the Bible does not). It is a legal contract for them (covenants are routinely defined in terms of contracts in this theological construct. Biblically covenants are matters of divine grace and love and not matters of law).

I confess that I lived with that image of God a good portion of my life. The image was modified somewhat as I grew in my reading of Scripture. But it was – ironically – nothing short of divorce that exploded, and destroyed, that idolatrous view of God.

Unless you have been through an earth shattering experience (divorce, death of a child or drawn out death of a spouse, etc) it is often difficult to imagine the seismic shift that can take place in our world. See my blog, Shattered Dreams.

Hermeneutic Reshapes Theology

After my divorce I read the Bible in a way I had never read it before. I read it for life. I read it demanding to hear from God! I read it cover to cover and then again. It was the only place to run. I was not concerned about this or that issue anymore.

I confess looking back that I really never actually read the Bible previously.  I read bits of Scripture here and bits over there. Sometimes what I read was not even an entire sentence but I had memorized a verse devoid of its setting because it was useful for defeating the enemy (i.e. the wrong kind of believers!). I read the Bible for a sermon, a class, to prove I was right and they were wrong.

But now I read the Psalms over and over, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, the Gospels, 1 Peter, the whole Bible end to end and then again. I was desperate for something that is hard to explain.

I can look back at my notes and see the desperation of the deer in Psalm 42. Images that had never had any meaning to me were screaming in my face … “as the deer is dying for the water so I need you!!!” Those words were sung a thousand times but had no meaning whatsoever. But huddling in the corner of the shower screaming at the wall gave those words immediacy. Suddenly in my life a, seemingly, irrelevant phrase was a word of remarkable grace. It was the word of life. And it was Old Testament!

As I read the Bible, I noticed its God given structure that I had never even considered previously.  I noticed that reading from Genesis to 2 Kings is actually single, unbroken, narrative. It is the Story of a God who creates and delights in what was created. That single narrative is a story of a God who is passionate and pursues those who respond by giving him the middle finger.

The Story was about God and only secondarily about the people.  God is the “star.” God created. God did not destroy the rebellious Adam. God gave a murderer a mark of grace. God punished sin. God saved Noah and the world by grace. God called the pagan Abram. God promised the pagan all creation would be blessed by God thru him. God promised the doubting Abram a unilateral covenant that God would keep it no matter what. God brought Joseph to bless the whole world thru Abram’s seed. God heard the cries of aliens in Egypt whose baby boys were slaughtered by state approval. God delivered people from state sponsored terrorism even as they fought, complained, resisted because slavery was better than the wilderness. God came to LIVE IN THEIR MIDST. God married Israel. God fed, clothed and even protected the feet of those who rejected him for 40 years. God lead a faithless and even idolatrous band into a land flowing with “milk and honey.” God delivered Israel from self-inflicted wounds using people often no better than criminals. God promised David an eternal kingdom. God walked with both Israel and Judah for hundreds of years through their brazen unfaithfulness. God places the exiled son of David at a place of honor.

The Story is literally about God. The God of Exodus 34.6. God is slooooooooooooooow to anger. God forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

I read the Bible, often barely seeing the page in those early days, I saw stories that I used to see as about a very picky and technical deity transformed. What I had so poorly understood as nothing but wrath I could see were not the marks of Technicality, but of the suffering and a broken heart of Yahweh.

God’s “anger” is the expression of Spurned Love. The Hebrew Bible conceives of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel as a covenant, which is perversely called a “contract” by many. In Jewish understanding marriage interprets the relationship with God and the relationship with God explains marriage. We don’t have contracts with our spouse, nor our children.

HESED is the very essence of marriage and it is the essence of Israel’s covenant -all of them. “You are my people” and “You are our/my God” are nuptial vows.

Literally “I will take you to myself as my people” the Hebrew verb “take” is used no less than 70x in the Bible to refer to getting married (see Gen 4.19; 6.2; 11.29; 12.19; 24.4; 25.1; 34.16; etc, etc).  Exodus views Mt. Sinai as a divine wedding ceremony envisioning all the wondrous intimacy between humans and Yahweh, as the Song of Songs views between a wife and her husband.

So when we get to the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32-34 we have narrated for us the equivalent of a spouse cheating with the bellhop while on the honeymoon. When I read Yahweh’s response to his spouse’s infidelity for the first time ever I was able to see that — because of my divorce — as something other than simply being ticked off!

I knew because that was how I felt. I knew that raw emotion. I knew that pain! Yahweh did not respond to Israel because he was Technical, rather God responded as he did because he is a Passionate Lover! Yahweh is Suffering in Exodus. This is revealed in one of the greatest texts in the Bible … Exodus 34.6-7 where “HESED” is not only the essence of the covenant but of the one true God the Creator of Heaven and Earth. (For more on Exodus 32-34 see my linked Untamed God, Dangerous Grace).

Discovering the God of the Bible

When I read in the Bible I saw things that had always been there but I paid no attention to them. The Passion of God, God’s suffering, because, and on behalf,  of God’s people was something I picked up on.

Jeremiah told me that Yahweh himself went through a divorce. The stigma of divorce in my religious circles is hard to justly describe. It borders on the unforgivable sin. These texts in Jeremiah, I never paid attention previously.  God’s divorce was no quick, easy, divorce over some technical issue. Yahweh had suffered centuries of Golden Calfs (repeats of Exodus 32-34)!  When I realized that Hosea’s marriage quite literally was the living interpretation of the history of the Bible (God’s people in the Bible) again the whole Story was recast and Jeremiah burst open the heart of Yahweh.

The deeper the love the more bitter the sorrow, I can tell you this. Love does not always bring giddy flights of fuzzy feelings. True love may place you right smack in the middle of Emotional Hell. I can say I had no clue. God’s history with Israel alone destroys the myth of the idolatrous technical god.

But I did not know God had suffered divorce (Jer 3.6-24). It was not part of my bits of data I had memorized for “commands, examples and necessary inferences.”  Had I known about it at that time I likely would have dismissed it, as we so often do, as “that’s in the Old Testament.”

Suddenly rather than a Judge, or a Cop, isolated from the dirt of life, I noticed that Yahweh actually understood my shame. Israel’s God actually loves enough to share it. In that very text, where Yahweh unleashes centuries of brutal anguish, we even hear from the tear stained lips of God some of the most emotive, graphic, and powerful language in the Bible … but I had been there! (I speak of Jer 3.2 where every English translation known to me follows the ancient rule, “do not translate in public” the word sagal … but we should!!!  The Germans do).

God is not wrathful like some explosive volcano, God is “dying” (to use a not very far from the truth metaphor).

When we continue into Jeremiah, we see Yahweh not issuing legal decrees but hiring mourners because his own “eyes” could not shed enough tears and he is begging for comfort because the pain of Judah’s centuries of infidelity had caused him (cf. Jer 8.18-9.25). Suddenly there in the corner of the shower my entire theology of God was redefined. This is no technical god that spoke through Jeremiah! (See on God’s Tears here Tears: God’s or Mine?). Yahweh is the God of costly, painful, never ending hesed – steadfast love.

Exceptional Stories that are the Exception

As I read and reread … for life … I saw those old terrifying stories in a completely fresh and new light. First I noticed them for what they are … exceptional. They are not the “norm.” We do not build life or theology from unique, exceptional, circumstances only. I also saw that God is Holy. He is Light. No darkness is in him. I saw that God cannot tolerate evil. God hates evil.

But as much as God hates evil, the Story declares that God loves creation more than he hates evil. Some will balk at this but it is true nonetheless.

God refused to eliminate Adam and Eve – they are the whole human race btw.

God’s Love was greater than human Sin.

God refused to make creation non-existent in the Flood but saved all creation, He vowed to never do it again.

God’s Love was greater than human Sin.

God refused to wipe Israel out at the Golden Calf, instead Immanuel came (God did graciously dwell with Israel).

God’s Love was greater than human Sin.

God refused to eliminate Manasseh, instead forgave him at the drop of a hat and restored him.

God’s Love was greater than human Sin.

God refused to let rebellious Jonah die but saved him repeatedly, even when Jonah nearly curses God for hesed on the Assyrians.

God’s Love was greater than human Sin.

Exodus 34.6 is the only explanation for all of these things — which is why it is quoted over and over throughout the Hebrew Bible (Read Exodus 34: The Pulse of the Bible).

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

It is the history of Israel that is the basis for Paul’s startling declaration “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5.20). Paul gets this theology from the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible!

But I saw that God loved Creation as much as God hates Evil. Indeed more! The Cross is the supreme testimony to this stunning Hebrew Bible truth (meditate on Romans 5.6-11 and 1 John 4.9, 16).  I did not get this before.

Before, I sort of believed if I happened to “make it to heaven” I would be a lucky one. What blasphemy! If I am saved now I know it is because God chose to suffer for creation rather than destroy it.

So Nadab and Abihu did in fact die but it was not because God was technical and they failed in the precision of their obedience. They mocked God! That is the entire point of the story, and I missed it, and many still do. They had a heart issue. They showed up to the first day, the “day of inauguration,” of the holy priesthood (Lev 10 is the day of inauguration of the priesthood) so smashed, so drunk, they could not do their job on behalf of Israel.

But our old hermeneutic, that created the Technical god, literally blacks out the story as the Holy Spirit gave it in Leviticus 10. Eleven verses are dedicated to the Nadab and Abihu debacle (vv 1-11) and four of those have to do with the prohibition of alcohol while on duty, that is forty percent (40%) of the passage (and the techy hermeneutic people deny these verses are relevant) of showing up to the Tabernacle drunk. And some folks think this is a matter of Precision Obedience! This is a matter of mocking the holy beloved.

But Nadab and Abihu are only half the story of inauguration day. I never paid attention to the rest of Leviticus 10, Eleazar and Ithamar. In fact till the mid-90s, I had never heard of them. I can safely say that not one time in my life, did a “Church of Christ” preacher ever so much as mention them in a sermon or Bible class. But I heard about the strange fire regularly. I preached them. But Eleazar and Ithamar – Who!!??

But Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar are part of the same story in the very same chapter. In fact N & A end in verse 11 and E & I are named in verse 12. The rest of the story is dedicated to how God had mercy on them for indeed breaking a technical requirement but with a vastly different outcome.

Some mock the story now as a “sugar stick” text! (Those exact words were thrown at me). About three years ago a preaching brother challenged me to a debate. He brought up Nadab and Abihu, so I asked about Eleazar and Ithamar … he literally did not know who they were. They had no place in his hermeneutic or his theology. A Technical god cannot abide Eleazar and Ithamar.

Old Uzzah has been shafted nearly as bad as Nadab and Abihu. It never occurred to me that the problem was not Uzzah at all. The problem was David.

Because I grew up cherry picking the biblical text (we played “hopscotch” with the text), I did not realize that there was more to the story of Uzzah than merely touching the Ark in 1 Chronicles 13. The Chronicler basically devotes 3 chapters to the episode, chapters 13, 15-16. I did not pay attention to the narrative of Chronicles, my bad hermeneutic did not allow that. The story is about David, not Uzzah.  David gets smacked down because he did basically the same thing Nadab and Abihu, he mocked God. David sought to control God. The ark was his divine talisman to manipulate the divine. A rabbit’s foot. Yahweh did not play David’s game.

David confesses his responsibility for the debacle in 15.13ff. Ironically when the Ark is brought up, we see David wearing high priestly attire (15.25, 27) and performing the sacrifices before the Lord (16.1-3), certainly technical violations but no frying takes place. Uzzah was not burned because of a technicality.  He suffered because of David’s arrogance. Uzzah suffered from David’s sin. The principle is the same as in 1 Chronicles 21 where David brings “guilt upon Israel” and thousands of people suffer because of his hubris (see 21.1-17). David, not Uzzah, is the culprit in the Ark narrative. But this is completely missed when our hermeneutic dictates we see little isolated verses rather than the narrative structure of the whole.

Life, Theology, Heremeneutic

I do not recommend divorce. It is a hellish experience. But through it I see God transformed. Now God did not change.  What changed was my ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear.  I once saw that Technical god but now I saw the one true God who suffers precisely because he loves so deeply. I saw the Father of Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel.

Yes, God hates evil but his solution to that was to sacrifice himself through the Word incarnate. The God who shed tears in Jeremiah and commanded Hosea to go buy back his guilty wife (!!) to “love her as I love the Israelites EVEN THOUGH SHE IS LOVED BY ANOTHER” (to use the old jargon, God found his wife “living in sin” and “bought” her back anyway) and is the God who would rather let Jesus die on the cross than be without you and me!

I simply cannot comprehend that love. There is no technicality to it. There is no logic to it. There is no syllogism for it. It has nothing to do with precision obedience.

It just is. That is why John thunders, “if you want to know what love looks like see Jesus stripped and hanging on the cross” (cf. 1 Jn 3.16; 4.9).

My divorce made me see God’s own “experience” in the text that I had never paid attention to. My divorce made me mad but the anger had nothing to do with hate or revenge. I was mad because it “hurt like hell.”

My relationship with God, our relationship with God, is a Covenant of Love. Because we actually love our Spouse we desire nothing short of living in utter devotion to him/her.

Nothing pleases us more than pleasing our God. Nothing! But because I am in a genuine covenant of hesed, I do understand that when (not if) I mess up, the relationship itself is not in danger of collapsing. What a pathetic excuse of a relationship if it was.

Instead my God has wrapped his glorious holiness in Jesus and weeps with those who weep, is the friend of sinners (even religious ones!!) and declares for all those who did not quite get it back in Hosea … “I DESIRE mercy rather than sacrifice …” It has always been so.

What kind of God do you worship? My God is the one who suffers, cries, and laments. My God is the one who is Holy and so Loving that when his holiness could take no more, he put Jesus on the cross instead of me.

All I can do is join Moses, and worship him (Ex 34.8)

13 Responses to “Bad Theology, Bad Hermeneutic: Together like a Horse and Carriage (Some Reflections on Rediscovering God)”

  1. Darryl Says:

    Finally, someone who has read all of the Nadab and Abihu story! Funny thing, my father had told me that story several times when I was a kid and he always brought up the following prohibition against drinking while serving!

    I don’t want to dwell on that and miss your overall point, though.

    I think we all owe it to ourselves to read the prophets and see the passion and pathos of God. I also think we should very well consider the lens of the Old Testament is the cross of Jesus: the crucified God who bears evil on himself letting it burn itself out. The one who does not break the bruised reed.

    To paraphrase someone else: we must never view the NT depictions of God|Jesus through the lens of the OT depictions of God. If Jesus is the perfect representation–the fullest revelation of who God is, then we must do the opposite. All OT depictions of God MUST be viewed through the lens of Jesus and the cross–a self-giving and sacrificing God who would rather die than count our sins against us.

  2. Edward Fudge Says:

    Not to nitpick, but I published a tract in the early 1970’s about these four brothers, showing God’s intolerance of defiant rebellion (Nadab and Abihu) and his acceptance of a humble though technically-disobedient response (Eleazer and Ithamar).

    • Darryl Says:

      My dad probably read your book, Edward! B^)

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Brother Fudge always honored to have you reading my blog.

      It is not nitpicking. Do you know if your exposition of Leviticus 10 is available online. Feel free to share a link.

      I have covered it myself in previous writings but would love to make yours available to my readers.


  3. Ann Hendren Says:

    I am blessed after reading your work. You have put me in touch with God’s passionate, jealous love for me, us, all his creation. He understands my heartbreak for the losses in my life. I am feeling and thinking so much more than I can express. He has my beautiful son, Philip, who talked and pleaded with, and worshipped Him all his adult life. Keeping aware of this by faith keeps me from being overwhelmed with grief. Love is so costly.

  4. Donnis Says:

    You have describe the God I worship but one of my preacher’s rejoices in the nit picky gotcha god who zaps people for mistakes they don’t see. Sad.

    And yes. I read the whole Bible through again and again. Now I’m reading a NT book and then an OT book.

  5. carrie thompson Says:

    Thank you, Bobby, for sharing your insight. Thank you also, for your openness and display of vulnerability. I have found that at my times of being my broken, the assurance of God’s love allowed me to maintain a hope that I would get through. Also, looking forward at some of the challenges coming, I know that it’s only through God’s love that I may have success with those challenges. Blessings.

  6. Russ Hicks Says:

    Not everyone who sees covenant as a contract or agreement based on love instead of legalities falls into the technical god heresy.

  7. Dwight Says:

    I disagree somewhat…I believe Nadab and
    Abihu sinned because they forsook God’s law in regards to the incense, although it was due to their drunkenness. In Exodus 30:34-38 God details the recipe for the incense to be used and calls it holy as an offering to Him. The profane fire was incense not of this recipe due to their drunkenness. As you noted they were punished due to them not approaching God as being Holy by being drunk and then doing an unholy thing. But they weren’t punished until they offered the fire, even though they entered into the Temple drunk with the unholy incense.
    But I do know of Eleazar and Ithmar and God’s mercy.
    This is also seen in regards to Hezekiah. Hezekiah offered a second, uncommanded Passover and then some people came to the Passover unclean, to which Hezekiah prayed to God and God didn’t smite them.
    God sees the loving heart over man who sees the technical faults.
    Mercy over judgement.

  8. Dwight Says:

    Here is another verse that argues for what the sin of Nadab and Abihu were. They intentionally sinned, probably by being drunk…intentionally.
    But the law in regards to sinning unintentionally, even for the priest was a sin offering, not death.
    Lev. 4:1-3 NKJV
    1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
    2 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a person sins unintentionally
    against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which ought
    not to be done, and does any of them,
    3 if the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer
    to the LORD for his sin which he has sinned a young bull without blemish as
    a sin offering.”
    God overall showed mercy for even unintended sin, but was against open rebellion. But this shows that God took intentions of the heart into consideration when looking at sin.

    • Darryl Says:

      Here’s another thought that is pure speculation on my part. They are drunk, they are using “strange fire”, and “fire comes from the LORD”…we are assuming the fire is lightening or falling from the sky.

      Where is God’s presence assumed to be in this story? How about the Holy of Holies? Perhaps the priests stuck their noses in where they didn’t belong…the Most Holy Place–a desolating abomination.

      In any case, I don’t think this was a situation where they just disobeyed a technical detail with the type of fire they offered. There were certainly a lot of things going on in text beyond “unsanctified fire”.

  9. Mitch Says:

    Growing up I heard more about Nadab and Abigail and Uzzah than I did John 3:16. I heard Acts 2:38 more than I heard John 3:16. We have a religion based on laws and fear more than on love and forgiveness.

  10. john acuff Says:

    The best I have seen on this subject one I left behind when the Church of Christ I was attending suggested that we go elsewhere but one now that I am back in that same church the old elders having passed I will forward it to those laboring in the horror of a God who does not love them but it out to get them.

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