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February 18, 2011

One Sunday Morning in Baptist Bible Study

Read/Post Comments (2)

Because of the text we were studying (2 Kings 17:5-19) questions were raised for me that apparently interested no one else. Here was the situation: the Northern Kingdom of Israel (capitol in Samaria) had earlier formed a treaty with the Assyrians in which Samaria agreed to pay tribute to Assyria (2 Kings 17:3-4—these verses were virtually ignored by the lesson writer). The Northern Kingdom of Israel, however, broke the treaty, which naturally angered the Assyrians—so they destroyed Samaria and deported all the inhabitants from the country and repopulated the land with non Israelites (2 Kings 17:5-6). The lesson writer and the biblical writer, ignoring this historical datum as the reason for the fall of Samaria, blamed the deportation completely on the sinful ways of the people (2 Kings 17:7-20), rather than on a failed foreign policy. One question for me was: how could the lesson writer and the biblical writer so clumsily ignore the historical reason for the fall of the Northern Kingdom—i.e., the broken treaty?

     One theological question that emerged for me in the course of the morning was this: is God present everywhere; or to phrase differently: is there someplace that God is not? I raised the question because in 2 Kings 17:18, 20 the biblical writer says that when the Israelites were deported it was because God was putting them “out of his sight.” I wondered how that was possible, since contemporary Christian theology says that God is omnipresent—i.e., there is no place that God is not. Some modern theologians go so far as to describe the entire universe being permeated by the spirit of God (the big word for this idea is “panentheism”—God is in all things but is not to be identified with any one particular thing).

     The problem that seemed clear to me was this: modern belief did not square with the belief of the writer of 2nd Kings (who in Baptist faith was supposedly writing “Word of God.”) The biblical writer seemed to be thinking that God is tied to the land of the Israelites, so that when Israelites are deported to Assyria they are indeed “removed from God’s sight”—in the land of Ashur, the God of Assyria. A similar idea is present in Jonah. Jonah thought that he could board a ship and flee to a place where God was not. The point of the story of Jonah is to disabuse him of the idea that he could hide from God in another land—Yahweh is a universal God! The writer of Jonah agrees with the Psalmist (139:7-9), who said that there was no place that God was not. One text in the New Testament even suggests that divinity holds the entire universe together (viz., Colossians 1:17), which seems to endorse the idea that God is panentheistic.

     So what did we do with 2 Kings 17:18, 20? The class offered three responses: 1. a sort of bored silence; 2. an appeal to “progressive revelation”—God was not able tell the Israelites the real truth; because of their primitive state they were not able to handle the full truth (which in this way of viewing the text is “The Christian Truth”—which seems to admit that Hebrew Bible from a Christian perspective is a theologically limited text and could not possibly be the full and complete Word of God—because it involves God stating a partial truth (or if you prefer a partial untruth); 3. God could do whatever he wanted, even to giving up his omnipresence (those holding this idea did not consider the result of limiting God’s presence—in the end there was a place God was not, and hence God is not perfect in all his ways.

     As I looked around the class that morning, from my perspective there were three types of auditors in the group. 1. Comfortable traditionalists, who regardless of questions and answers would persist in the tradition they had been taught without bothering to think seriously about the questions and what they implied. 2. Uncomfortable traditionalists, who would look for the least disruptive ways to square what they had been taught with perfectly reasonable questions, so they would not have to modify their behavior or their traditional faith. 3. Non-traditionalists who were willing to raise questions and consider ways radically to revise the tradition based upon answers consonant with human reason rather than traditional theology.

     Well, O. K., maybe there were not many in the third category!

     What distinguished these types was how they read. On the one hand, the lesson writer, the biblical writer, and groups one and two read the text (without curiosity) from a traditional religious mindset—i.e. the Bible must reflect my own theology and faith! On the other hand, a curious person would read the text critically, which meant raising unsettling questions, pondering new possibilities, and making judgments in the light of historical evidence rather than traditional faith.

     How do you read? Are you a curious reader or a traditional reader? Does it make a difference how you read?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:28am

I used to read traditionally, or in a devotional manner, but now I read curiously. For me, it opened up a whole new world and made these stories much more interesting. I find this espeially true for the gospels--say, reading the different points emphasized by Matthew and Luke in the same story--and reading Acts compare to Paul. The combination of redaction criticism and understanding historical context really gives you a window into the author's intent, in my opinion.

Mike Gage
Posted by Mike Gage on 2/23/2011 at 12:48pm

Hey, Dr. Hedrick,

I suppose first off to answer your two questions at the end of your blog, I am probably a combination of both. As for looking at the situation with the Northern Kingdom, one could easily say that God had simply turned his back on Israel, because of Israel breaking with the covenant. The fact that the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by violating a treating with the Assyrians, I would argue, probably does not necessarily take away the idea that God was/is omnipresent. I would argue just as much the same when the Southern Kingdom of Judea was crushed by the Babylonians.

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 2/19/2011 at 11:02am