Chapter 4: Meeting God Historically
The validity of the Bible stands or falls on what it says about God’s will for man. The authority of the Bible does not come from the fact that it has preserved valuable sources for the historian but from the way it interprets God’s will and work. In other words, the authority of the Bible rests on the way it theologizes -- the way it interprets theos, God. Chapters Four and Five explore the way the Bible speaks about God.
Thou or It?
First we notice the language the Bible uses for God. The Bible talks about God as if he were a man. From beginning to end, from one stratum of tradition to another’ it uses anthropomorphisms. For example, God planted a garden (Genesis 2:8,9); he loves one and hates another (Malachi 1:2 f., Romans 9:13); he becomes angry (Exodus 4:14, Revelation 19:15). The Bible even mentions parts of his body: he has eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, face, arms, hands -- even a posterior! Admittedly this is symbolic, but so is all language. What is important is that the Bible insists on symbolizing God in human terms. Although the Bible says man is created in the image of God, it is clear that biblical language about God is created in the image of man. Therefore some readers have simply inferred that man has actually created God in his own image. Such a conclusion is more clever than true.
Actually, using terms taken from human experience to talk about God does not make the Bible distinctive, for all religions do this. What is unique is that this "humanization of God" in the language about him stands side by side with a relentless rejection of every real image of God. The imagery of God in human terms saturates the Bible; at the same time the Bible repudiates every image of God in wood, stone, or metal (Exodus 20:1-6, Isaiah 44:9-20, Mark 13:14f., I Thessalonians 1:9f.). True, the Israelites did, from time to time, use images of God in worship (Exodus 32, I Kings 12:25-33, II Kings 21:1-18). But this shows that it is important to distinguish between Israelite religion and Old Testament faith, between what the people did and what the Old Testament writers say they should have done.
It is clear that the biblical writers rejected material representations of God, called idols. It is equally clear that they used human imagery to do so. They were not inconsistent; but, knowing that no particular image can really represent God, they felt free to use almost every kind of verbal imagery. For example, Hosea spoke of God’s covenant with Israel in terms of marriage. He could do so because at the same time he insisted God had no female consort, as the Israelites implied when they used fertility rites to worship him. Similarly, the biblical writers were not afraid to speak of God as Father because they have become convinced that God is not a male being. The Bible never speaks of the divine genitals, even though surrounding cultures emphasized them in fertility rites. Rather, the Bible uses the term "father" to express God’s care and control. In the Bible, the "Fatherhood of God" does not express the notion that God is the sire of the universe or man, but that he is the sovereign patriarch of the household -- that is, of the whole creation.
Thus the first thing we must note is that basically the Bible speaks of God as if he were a person, as one whom we encounter as Thou and not as It. Therefore the language derived from "I" and "Thou" is the most appropriate way for the Bible to talk about "Him."
Some readers of the Bible are offended by the idea of God as Thou. They cannot conceive of God in personal terms and cannot entertain the notion that he actually confronts them personally. They do not regard themselves as unbelievers; they simply cannot get beyond speaking of God as It.
Sometimes this takes sophisticated forms. Thus one may speak of God as a phenomenon by selecting a phenomenon or experience and capitalizing it; thus God is Power, Love, Spirit, Goodness, the Drift-of-history. There is no need to expand this list or to argue the appeal of this way of thinking about God. Another way to depersonalize God is more subtle. One may use personal terms like Father without taking them seriously. Words like Father are used poetically like "Mother Nature" though the real, functioning concept of God may be highly impersonal, precisely like "Nature." One reason we have difficulty with personal terms for God is that our culture has become largely depersonalized. Consequently, talking about God in personal terms often does not communicate anything -- it presents only a blur. It is possible that by reminding us of the personal character of the God-man relation, the Bible may help to prevent the total depersonalization of man.
Be that as it may, here are two fundamental modes of thinking about God. Actually, we do not need to repudiate the impersonal language altogether, because it is essential for thinking about God philosophically, especially if one probes to the ontological basis of the biblical message.(One of the merits of Paul Tillich’s book, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), is the fact that it shows how ontological positions underlie the biblical statements and therefore cannot be avoided or denied by theology as a whole). What is essential, however, is that we see clearly that the Bible does not do this, but persists in using personal terms and sees even impersonal phenomena like storms as signs that the intensely personal God is present (for example, Exodus 19:1B-20, Psalm 29). Yet, seeing how the Bible talks about God leads us to ask why it does so.
The Bible speaks about God as Thou because the community experienced him as such. The Bible seldom theorizes about this but simply assumes it. Israel and the Church understood themselves to be confronted by One who spoke promise and demand, who involved them with himself in a covenant. Writers within such a community therefore used the language derived from personal relationships and encounters. They chose personal terms, not because after due consideration these appeared to be the most promising, but because they were convinced God made himself known as men do -- by speech and action. A man as an anatomical specimen can be known by autopsy, but this tells us little about the man as a person. This must be known by understanding what he says and does. The Bible assumes this is equally true of God; it speaks of God as Thou because the community believes it has heard him and seen his work.
This is why the Bible never analyzes God. The doctrine of the Trinity, which does this for Christians by using categories drawn from Greek philosophy, is not stated anywhere in the Bible.(The Bible does, however, raise the issues to which the doctrine of the Trinity addresses itself. See such passages as John 1:1-18, II Corinthians 18:14, Colossians 1 :15-20, Hebrews 1 :1-4.) The kind of question which this doctrine answers is a legitimate concern, but the Bible does not talk about God in this vein. Instead, it speaks of God in terms of his relationships to the world and men, and these are expressed in personal terms because the community believes itself to be involved in such relatedness. The biblical writers do not take up the position of objective observers who report how God and man are getting along. Rather, they speak out of a sense of being involved, even if they speak of God in third person. They grapple with the theological issues from the point of view of the arena, not the pressbox. For instance, Job is not interested in the problem of suffering as such but in answering the mystery of his experience; he does not ask so much for an explanation of evil as for an opportunity to take his case directly to God (Job 12:122, 23:1-17, 30:19-23). For the same reason, the "answers" to such issues do not come in the form of general statements so much as in terms of personal address (for example, Job 38:1-40:2, Jeremiah 15:15-21, II Corinthians 12:1-10). In a word, the Bible theologizes more in terms of personal conversations, even arguments between God and man, than in terms of analytical statements because it refuses to make "Him" into an "It" for study and observation. Instead, it insists on hammering out its understanding of God (expressible also in descriptive statements, to be sure) in confrontation with Him, with a Thou who talks back and asks questions of his own.
In the Bible, this communication (which can be called "the Word of God") takes two forms: direct communication by visions or speech, and indirect revelation through events which need interpretation. Even when God communicates directly, he speaks about himself only insofar as this is necessary to interpret what he will do or what he commands. Exodus 3:13-17 sets the pace for the whole Bible. When Moses asked God to identify himself, God replied with a statement which is neither a definition of deity nor a doctrine about God. God said he is the One who makes himself known as the One who makes himself known: I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, or as it is more commonly translated, I AM WHO I AM.
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations...."
Then follows the command to return to Egypt with the news that this I AM will liberate the people. In other words, God’s self-disclosure is bound to historical events. When God reveals himself he never communicates information about himself. He never reveals "theology." What he reveals is his will and work, and both of these concern human history.
The other kind of self-disclosure, indirect revelation through historical events, has two foci: the recipients of the revelation and the events through which it occurs. That is, God reveals himself to particular people through particular events in their own history. We think of Moses in the situation of Israelite slavery in Egypt, the prophet Amos in his context of mushrooming injustice, Jeremiah in the midst of a collapsing society, the writer of Daniel in time of persecution, Paul in the act of persecuting the Church. The Bible reports each man’s receiving a revelation which is uniquely his own. At the same time, it was through particular events and their meanings that the divine Thou addressed them. Both sides of the coin are important. The next chapter concerns the way God reveals himself by historical events. The rest of this chapter will show why the situation of the recipient is so important for the understanding of God.
How Does Historicity Affect Hearing?
The term "historicity" has developed a double meaning. Usually it means simply factuality. Thus "the historicity of Moses" means the factuality of Moses, that there really was such a person. But the term has a more subtle meaning as well. In this sense, "the historicity of Moses" means that Moses was conditioned by his place in history. In other words, the idea of historicity commonly means that a person or an event can be located in history; the second meaning emphasizes that this person or event is conditioned by the point where he is located. Now, we are concerned with the second meaning.
We must recognize at the outset that we generally want timeless, unconditioned Truth-with-a-capital-T. Orthodoxies of all kinds often become viciously intolerant because they claim their formulations or creeds to be eternal Truth (drawn up at some time, however!). Thus Christian Orthodoxy has insisted that the truth in the Bible is eternal, that the vicissitudes of time and history do not really affect it. Wherever this view dominates, there is little room for seeing the conditioned character of everything the Bible says. We must be clear. We are not denying that there is such a thing as eternal Truth, unaffected by human history; we are simply denying that any man actually has such a truth, for eternal, unconditioned Truth exists only with God.
Without saying so, the Bible undergirds this point. Biblical writers have no doubt, of course, that God is eternally one God or that he is faithful to his own character. But its concern is not to record eternally valid statements about him. Because it assumes God makes himself known both at particular points in history and by means of particular events, it recognizes that Israel’s understanding of God and her understanding of herself are interrelated. The Bible is, in effect, a result of the dialogue between the community’s self-interpretation and its God-interpretation. Consequently, everything the Bible says about God must be seen in the light of the situation in which it is said. The Bible itself implies this, for instance, by prefacing the Ten Commandments with a reminder that the God who commands is the one who liberated the people from servitude, and that the people are to obey him as a liberated community (Exodus 20:1-17). In the same way, the New Testament discusses the Church in the light of what God has achieved through Jesus (for example, I Corinthians 3:10-15, Ephesians 2:11-22); conversely, it speaks of God and Christ in the light of what the community has experienced (for instance, Romans 1:1-ff, Hebrews 2: 10-18).
As we turn to specific biblical affirmations about God, it would be easy to restrict ourselves to those insights which are not problematic, like monotheism, in order to show the continuing relevance of the Bible. Unfortunately, such ideas stand side by side with concepts which embarrass us. Moreover, choosing ideas which we also affirm may actually obscure the real point under discussion -- that everything the Bible says about God is historical understanding. Therefore, we focus on several ideas of God which may appear objectionable. We do not want simply to show that the Bible is inadequate in places, but to underline its historicity as a whole. First we select two areas where we have trouble with what the Bible says about God. Then we shall show how seeing these as historically conditioned can help us over the hurdle, and finally we shall ask how we are able to decide which statements about God we may affirm for ourselves.
The Bible says things about God which we find hard to believe. One concerns the problem of suffering. No one can deny that the Bible often says religion pays, and pays well. It also says irreligion brings doom. This is a basic theme in the Book of Deuteronomy. The authors put the whole history of Israel under this alternative:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God . . . then you shall live and multiply and the Lord your God will bless you. . . . But if your heart turns away . . . you shall perish (Deuteronomy 30:16ff.).
In the same way, Psalm 1 assures the righteous man that "in all that he does, he prospers." A similar view saturates the collection of Proverbs. On the other hand, everyone knows that innocent men do suffer while scoundrels prosper. Hence we simply cannot believe a that statement which says God guarantees prosperity to the faithful, chaos to the unfaithful.
We also find it hard to believe what the Bible says about God’s relation to war. Of all the repugnant ideas about God in the Bible, the notion that he is a God of war perhaps leads the list (for instance, Exodus 15:3, Numbers 21:14, Psalm 18:34, Isaiah 34:6). One particularly offensive story is found in I Samuel 15, in which God commands King Saul to wage a holy war, a crusade, against the Amalekites. The entire population and its property are to be annihilated. The story reports a complete victory for Saul. But when he spared the best specimens of the flocks, property, and the vanquished King Agag, God’s spokesman, Samuel, pronounced doom for Saul and personally took the sword and "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." The story ends with the comment that "the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel" in the first place! Nothing is gained by downgrading the horror of the story.
There are at least three major ways to come to terms with this kind of portrait of God. One is to claim that all such objectionable ideas are in the Old Testament and can be set aside simply for this reason. The Old Testament God is a God of wrath and war and the New Testament God is one of love and peace. This was Marcion’s view, and it continues to attract support. But such an approach cannot endure close examination because this shows that the New Testament takes the Old for granted and builds on it.
Another way of dealing with the objectionable ideas of God is to speak of "progressive revelation." In this view, the Bible contains a developing concept of God ranging from primitive, crude, and lusty ideas to sophisticated and spiritual ones. The Bible thus marks the places mankind has been in its pilgrimage to spirituality. This view has the real advantage of recognizing that genuine development has occurred. However, it is too closely wedded to an evolutionary scale, to the notion that religious ideas are on an historical escalator. But it is far from clear that all older ideas were primitive while recent ones are advanced. Besides, this view assumes that the idea of God is the real concern of the Bible, and that by locating this emerging concept one has found what the Bible wants to say. Though the Bible is, of course, concerned to talk about God, it is not interested in purveying increasingly adequate concepts about him. As students of the phenomenon of religion, we are legitimately interested in the developing sophistication of man’s understanding of the divine, but this is not what the Bible itself wants to get across. But the most serious weakness of this outlook is that it tempts us to think we have outgrown those parts of the Bible which are early and unsophisticated (or even offensive), and that we may take seriously only those ideas of God which are congenial to us. This often amounts to an aesthetic appreciation for an idea of God. When this happens, the point the Bible wants to get across has been missed.
A more adequate approach is to emphasize the historicity of all concepts of God, including those in the Bible. This means that the assurance of Deuteronomy is understood in light of the original setting and not viewed from the vantage point of sophisticated spirituality. In other words, our total historical knowledge of Israel and the Church should equip us to stand momentarily with the writers in order to think with them about the character and will of God. Concretely, this means we must exert enough empathy to perceive what the Deuteronomist heard the divine Thou say to him, a seventh-century B.C. Israelite. When this is done, Deuteronomy’s words are no longer simply glib promises of heaven-sent wealth for the righteous, but a daring attempt to interpret the history of his people in the light of God’s concern for their obedience. Convinced that God was not indifferent to what the people did, he dared to write the history of the people as the story of God and Israel saying "yes" and "No" to each other.(The Deuteronomists’ total output includes the Books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Each of these, of course, depends on earlier sources. For a recent, important analysis of the Deuteronomic material, see Gerhard von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy David Stalker, tr.-- Studies in Biblical Theology No. 9 (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 195S). A less technical treatment is found in G. E. Wright & R. H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God -- Anchor Book (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1960), pp. 99-135.) In the writer’s day, this was an exciting risk. It still is, as anyone finds when he tries to tell the story of American history in the same way. In other words, the Deuteronomic account of Israel’s life shows us how the divine Thou addressed the Deuteronomists through their history and at that point in their history.
This is why the historical-critical method of studying the Bible is important, for it enables us to grasp what it actually meant to live as an Israelite in a given era. The more accurately we reconstruct the history of Israel and the Church, the more precisely we can see how the men of the Bible understood themselves to be addressed by the divine Thou.
Approaching the biblical understanding of God in this way does not rule out recognizing that real "progress" has been made. Seeing the historical conditionedness of everything the Bible says does not mean ignoring the real development of Israelite sensitivity and sophistication. It does, however, allow us to see the older, less developed materials in as positive a light as possible. In this way, the older, more brutal parts of the Bible may still communicate valid insights -- even to us.
At this point, it is helpful to return to the story of Saul, Agag, and Samuel. To understand the story appropriately, we must note three presuppositions of the situation. (a) The Amalekites were an ancient enemy which had harassed the Israelites for generations (Exodus 17, Judges 6). (b) Tribal warfare was a normal state of affairs (I Samuel 14:47-52) just as business competition is in our day. (c) A god’s power was commonly judged by the measure of success his people had in war and by the size of territory they managed to control (Judges 11:22-24). Therefore, the continual harassment by the Amalekites seemed to mock the divine commitment to Israel in the covenant.
In this light, the story’s import can emerge more clearly. The key is Saul’s disobedience to God’s command to wage a holy war of complete annihilation.
And he [Saul] took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed. (I Samuel 15:8f.)
Thus the holy war became a usual orgy of looting; despite the command that there was to be no personal benefit, Saul and his troops could not pass up the booty. Hence, the story says three things. One, this was not to be a normal tribal war with plenty of pillage. God actually summoned Saul to a new concept of holy war. Two, Saul disobeyed because he could not take this step; furthermore, he fled his responsibility:
And Saul said to Samuel, "I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, I have brought Agag . . . and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil . . . the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal." (I Samuel 15:20f.)
Finally, Samuel’s response was revolutionary: "To obey is better than sacrifice." There is no substitute for obedience, not even a religious act. This is why Samuel took the sword himself, for he was committed to bringing to pass what the Lord commanded. So he "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord."
Seen in its own setting, the story is no longer simply a repulsive story of a bloodthirsty God. In its native habitat the story shows a stern and sophisticated understanding of God’s command and of the seriousness of obedience. The blood and fury are still there, and still offend us, but we see more than the gore. The Bible must be read in this way because this shows that the divine Thou addresses men where they are, summons them to unexpected aspects of obedience and responds as a real Thou to their disobedience. This is a basic pattern found again and again in the Bible. So we underscore what was said earlier: the Bible does not present us with eternal doctrines about God but with a way of seeing how God spoke to men in their histories. Thus it raises the question whether he still speaks this way.
Must I Believe Everything It Says About God?
Having seen the kind of statements about God which appear objectionable, and having seen how historical understanding enables us to see positive merit in them, we must still face the question, What shall we do with these ideas today? Because a story like that in I Samuel 15 is in our Bible, must we accept its idea of God’s will as our own? To be sure, many Americans seem to be willing to launch a crusade against "atheistic communism" (Saul’s war might be called a preventive war!). But, if we finally shake our heads and say, "No, this is not an adequate picture of God’s will and character," we should know why we have come to such a conclusion.
To begin with, we must see that it is necessary to make distinctions within the Bible, for not everything in it has the same weight. Certain parts are more adequate expressions of God’s will and character than others. Actually, everyone makes such distinctions whether he realizes it or not. True, there are those who say, "I believe the Bible from cover to cover, and the cover too because there it says ‘Holy Bible.’" But such a person fools himself because it is simply impossible to give every statement in the Bible the same authority. The real question is not whether one should make distinctions between what is more adequate and what is less; the real question is the standard by which distinctions are made.
To this question, we make three comments. First, the standard ought to be appropriate to the Bible. Many Christians read the Bible through the eyes of the creeds. This, among other things, is what creeds are for. Others use a general definition of God, like "God is Love," to select those parts of the Bible which are decisive. Others operate with a general principle, like "the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man," and use those passages which contribute to this idea. But all these approaches suffer from the same defect -- they cannot take seriously enough the historical character of the Bible. In its own way, each of these methods weighs biblical ideas on the scale of abstract statements. When a story like I Samuel 15 is read in this way, it turns out to be fairly useless, except as a negative illustration.
Instead of measuring historical ideas of God by nonhistorical standards (as creeds, principles, and definitions tend to be), one ought to measure what the Bible says by using a historical norm. The Bible itself shows how this is to be done. In the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt is the pulse-giving event. Generation after generation, the interpreters of Israelite faith went back to this event and addressed their own times in its light, and thereby reinterpreted the exodus itself as well. The New Testament did the same, but used Jesus as the touchstone instead. Thus the Bible uses one historical event as the clue to others, and thereby hammers out its concepts of God on the same anvil.
Jesus the Christ is the standard by which Christians determine what is mandatory. Since Christians believe that Jesus did not replace the Old Testament as Marcion claimed but became its fulfillment, he is the lens through which Christians read the whole Bible. Orthodoxy has always insisted, and correctly, that Christ is the center of Scripture. Regrettably, it did not see that Jesus Christ is also a historical criterion.
This central conviction has not always been stated properly. Traditionally, people simply said that the Old Testament predicts Christ. Therefore every conceivable passage (and many others as well) was combed to find predictions. Prophecies were found wherever the interpreter’s ingenuity located them. Consequently, studying the Old Testament was like dowsing for water with a willow stick. This kind of study should have ended long ago. True, the New Testament itself sometimes uses the Old Testament in this way. But precisely this way of reading the Old Testament illustrates the historicity of the New Testament writers, for in their day this was the accepted way of reading Scripture. On the other hand, the New Testament writers are not nearly so literal and arbitrary in this matter as sometimes is claimed.
Be that as it may, we should not stop seeing Jesus as the link between the Testaments and the lens by which both are read. When the whole matter is thought through again, it becomes clear that it is not nearly so important to find Christ in the Old Testament as it is to find the Old Testament in Christ. That is, what is decisive is not finding predictions of Jesus but locating ways in which Jesus gives concreteness to certain emphases of the Old Testament.
To begin, Jesus made the Old Testament the foundation of his mission. He did this by intensifying its demands for total obedience to God alone. If he appears critical of contemporary Judaism, as in Mark 7, it is because he reasserts the fundamental axioms of the Old Testament in a radical way. Thus Jesus said, ‘You have heard . . . ‘An eye for an eye. . . .’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil." (Matthew 5:38f.) This does not simply set aside the Old Testament law of retaliation, but deepens its intent. Originally, the "eye for an eye" was not a green light for revenge but a stop light marking the limits of retaliation. Jesus deepened this original concern for the guilty by prohibiting all retaliation. By intensifying the Old Testament, he confirmed it. According to Matthew, Jesus said he came "not to abolish . . . but to fulfill" the law. Whether the precise wording is from Jesus’ own lips or not, it clearly expresses the thrust of his mission as a whole.
Another way Jesus gave concretion to the Old Testament is by going to Jesusalem knowing he would probably seal the decision with his blood. Three times Mark reports the so-called "passion predictions" (Mark 8:31, 9:30-32, 10:32-34). Some of these phrases were shaped in the light of the events that transpired. Still, it seems clear that Jesus reckoned with his destiny and found a way to pursue it. His attitude toward suffering stands in close relation to the deepest moment of the Old Testament insight on the problem, the poems of Second Isaiah (especially Isaiah 53). Scholars debate the extent to which Jesus deliberately shaped his demeanor to this pattern, but in any case his life fits it. In this way, he fulfilled the Old Testament and gave concreteness to its profoundest insight.
But what makes Jesus’ relation to the Old Testament decisive is his resurrection. Without this, Jesus remains an enigma or a failure, despite his close relation to the Hebrew Bible. After all, what difference would it make how Jesus stood in relation to the Old Testament if God had not vindicated him? We must not forget that those who helped to do away with him were the recognized interpreters of the Hebrew Bible.
To emphasize the resurrection does not mean that we rummage through the Old Testament to find predictions of it. It means that we draw certain inferences from the fact that of the three men who died on Good Friday afternoon, only one was raised from the dead. By resurrecting Jesus, God put his stamp of approval on him and his mission. Since his life was dominated by the Old Testament, the vindication of Jesus means that the basis of his life has been ratified also.
We may illustrate this by a hypothetical situation. Assume three students are summoned to the Dean’s office. Each is in difficulty with the police: one for drunken driving, another for disorderly conduct after a football game, the third for getting caught in a downtown disturbance over segregated facilities. As far as the police are concerned, all are guilty. But if the Dean were to nominate one of them for the Founder’s Medal, he would be validating this student’s conduct despite the opinions of the police. Similarly, on Easter God validated the mission of Jesus. This is what makes his life, and its basis, so important.
Specifically, how does Jesus’ life help us to read the Old Testament? The simplest way to illustrate this is to return to Saul, Agag, and Samuel again. To begin with, when Jesus’ life is seen as a whole, it is clear that obedience to God dominates it. Hence, the seriousness with which obedience is taken in I Samuel 15 is validated by Jesus’ own career. Moreover, Samuel’s dictum, "To obey is better than sacrifice" is also confirmed by Jesus because he made the same point in his own context (for instance, Mark 7:1-23, Matthew 5:21-24). Still, both the Sermon on the Mount and the character of his life point away from God’s command to Saul -- holy war. Hence, this command cannot be normative for Jesus’ followers. On the other hand, if Jesus had been a military Messiah who avenged the Jews by leading a crusade against Rome, then the command for holy war would have been validated and given definitive sanction by the Messianic general. Since Jesus refused this role, we refuse to believe holy wars are God’s will. The medieval Crusades against the Turks show the peril of not reading the Bible properly.
In other words, Jesus as the Christ is the gauge by which every disclosure of God’s will is measured. What is not consistent with this standard cannot be normative for the Christian. Historical study alone cannot solve all the problems we have with the Bible. True, approaching the Agag story historically permits us to see it in a proper light, and this is basic. But understanding what it meant then does not by itself show the role it can have now. For the Christian the ultimate mandate must always come from Jesus and the implications of what God achieved through him. In other words, even with the indispensable insights provided by the historical method, when the modern Christian reads the Old Testament through the lens of Christ, parts of it become Christianized. Thus he does in his way what the first Christians did in theirs. After all, this is what it means to have a Scripture in a community of faith.
But even though in the light of Jesus we may not accept a particular biblical command as an adequate disclosure of God’s will now, we must not conclude that God did not reveal himself then in just such terms. In fact, we must emphasize that this kind of revelation occurred to them in their history. In this light, we must also say that when the Christian reads the Bible through the lens of Christ, he listens for the Word of God in his own time. This is what it means to meet God historically.