Thursday, 29 March 2012

Biblical Oddities

In my reading of the Bible cover to cover, have recently come across a strange passage in Joshua 5, which reads:
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
 15 The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
Now, what I like about this passage is the way in which it appears to work, in some small way, against the grain of the wider narrative trajectory of the Jews leaving Egypt and entering the promised land.  That is, the man (whoever he is: a man, an angel, a theophany, etc) despite being the commander of the army of the LORD is neither for the Jews nor their enemies.  What does this mean?  It suggests to me that the Biblical narrative is not a purely linear tale of Hebrew triumphalism in the face of immense difficulties, but that there are more things going on than perhaps even the writer knew.  

There are other bits too which strike me as startlingly at odds with the general narrative.  Such as this snippet from Exodus 4, when Moses was preparing to go back to Egypt to tell pharaoh to let God's people go:
   24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)
What does it mean?  Why, when God had chosen Moses to gather the Jews and take them to the promised land, was the life of Moses threatened in such a way by no less than God himself?  Even granting that Moses ought to have circumcised his son by then, the passage stands out as remarkable in its oddness.  Again it works against the general thrust of the narrative of redemption; and it is precisely for this reason that I don't want to weasel my way into incorporating it into my understanding of it on the cheap, as though the Bible is meant to always only ever tell one story from a one-dimensional way.  I want to understand them, but not in a way that reduces their power to shock as counter-narratives.

On the plus side, I love the phrase 'bridegroom of blood' - sounds like a hammy Hammer Horror film title!     


  1. You have highlighted two of the most notoriously difficult Old Testament passages (I have a feeling there are a few more)!
    You made a comment, "It suggests to me that the Biblical narrative is not a purely linear tale of Hebrew triumphalism in the face of immense difficulties.." After reading the bible in broad sweeps also, if it is an attempts to portray Hebrew triumphalism, it fails well before the Angel of the Lord appears!
    It does strike me as a kind of "putting them in their place" kind of passage though. By the time one has finished with Joshua and got into Judges, who on earth knows what God will do or how surprisingly he will break into the story. But because this is D-History, everything must still be interpreted through the filter of Deuteronomy, and there we find Israel must remain loyal to YHWH and be on His side, since he is on no-one's side because he shares his glory with no one.

    On the Moses one, very odd indeed. Most likely a judgement on his as yet uncircumcised son. Moses did have it tough, but he also had some good experiences to slip into his CV.

  2. Following our discussion on interpreting Christocentrically, and for posterity, as fulfiller of the Law, Christ must surely be a Bridegroom of blood to the Church. It's not the first time that standard hermeneutical rules are broken to fit a Christological prophecy into the scheme of things. It's not as if we can talk about doing violence to the text! That would make the text the hypocrite - heaven forbid!!

  3. Christ as the Bridegroom of Blood is an excellently Christological idea, but not one which I feel would make a good movie.

    That aside, it's becoming clearer to me that such Christological readings don't come naturally (as if any readings were natural!!), and need to be fostered. It seems that even in our reading we must repent (turn) towards a way of reading that finds its fulfillment in Christ.
    Thanks for your insight!

  4. That is most likely true, but as I said before, in a Christological reading of the Old Testament, we run the risk of running roughshod over basic and well grounded hermeneutical rules - seeing Christ behind every stone so to speak - which runs great risks. As far as I can tell, the only interpreters who could do such outrageous hermeneutical gymnastics were the actual writers of the New Testament, who operated under inspiration with a capital "I". But other than this obvious problem (for us today), Jesus himself said the Scriptures bear witness to Him; therefore.... oh dear, help me...