Last week we looked at injecting meaning into the text or substituting understandings for the actual words of scripture.
Next week I want to look at possible implications for reading those four verses differently than many of us were taught to.
But this week I want just give a couple more examples of how we might be projecting an outside system onto that which is revealed in scripture. I want to do this by looking at four devilish passages that seem to be read on autopilot by many that I hear quoting them.
The first is in Genesis 3 – right at the beginning of the book. “1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Why do we think that this was anything other than a talking snake? Conservatives and Fundamentalist claim to read the Bible literally – often regarding Genesis 1 and 2 and the creation story. Then we get to Genesis 3 and we don’t continue with the literal hermeneutic… we do something.
What is that thing we are taught to do?
We swap out what is in the text for an interpretation we import from some other system. We see “snake” and swap out “the devil”. Why do we do that? What is the mechanism that allows us to do that? It is not an organic reading of the text. It certainly is not reading the Bible literally! It is an interpretation.
and that is my only point. No one reads the Bible literally. You’re not suppose to. It was written to be interpreted. That is the whole point of using genres like poetry and prophecy. It is required with many of the genres used in the writing of the Bible. Genesis 3 is not a newspaper report.
Jesus is talking about his journey that will lead to his death. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Did Jesus think that Peter was the devil? Had Peter morphed into the ghoulish Lord of the Netherworld? Was Peter possessed by a demonic force? Not exactly.
Peter was speaking to and encouraging the very thing that Jesus was most tempted by: taking that easy way. Not ‘drinking for the cup’ of suffering was the great struggle ( we see this is passages like john 17 where Jesus is wrestling with God [not literally of course – it’s a figure of speech] in prayer) . So our greatest temptation that takes us away from the will and way that God has for us is personified as ‘the devil’.
This, I think, is what happens is ‘the Last Supper’ John 13:27 (NIV) “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.” Now did the most powerful demonic ancient fallen angel that commands the dark minions personally enter into the physical body of Judas? That might be overdoing it. No – Judas gave over his will to that route that was his greatest temptation.
If you follow what I am saying here, think about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Phillip Yancey says in “The Jesus I Never Knew” that the real issue on the table [again not literally – just a figure of speech] is not whether Jesus was the messiah but rather what type of messiah he would be. Would he be one who took the easy road? In that sense when the devil says ‘if you are the son of god’ it really indicates ‘since you are the son of god’. His identity was not being decided. That was secure. His route was what was being decided.
12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
This passage is often quoted in terms of “spiritual warfare” which is another way of classifying a certain type of praying. It can be confusing because the verse right before this says “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” The key word there for many is devil.
But here is the thing that I hope you notice. In verse 12 it is not talking about the devil. It is talking about the devil’s scheme… and then notice what it actually says: rulers, authorities, dark powers of this world are in one category. Then it says “and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” which means that rulers, authorities, and dark powers of this world are not spiritual.
That gives us three categories: 1) flesh and blood 2) spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms and 3) rulers, authorities, dark powers of this world. So what are these? Well, they are not flesh and blood (people) and they are not spirits (or demons) – they are governments, courts, corporations, etc.
As long as christians continue to think that this is the devil that is being talked about – some nefarious dark fallen angel who is plotting humanities doom with army of demonic hordes… (very Roman imagery by the way if you think about the barbarians who lived in darkness and threatened Rome’s civilization light) – as long as we keep picturing that cartoony character we never get down to asking the real question: how is evil carried out in our world: could it be governments, courts, and corporations ?
but as long as christians think that it is some dark under-lord of another realm – they wholeheartedly turn a blind eye to the systems, structures and institutions that oppress and suppress humanity into bondage.
We could look at passages like Luke 10 , the sending out of the 72, where it says17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Jesus isn’t saying “along time ago in a galaxy far away I saw Satan – who was an angel – fall from heaven to earth and become the character that you know as the devil”. He was saying “while you were out on this training assignment I saw dark authority lose it’s power – now get it: nothing will harm you”.
Isaiah 14 is the other place that we get some of our thinking. But go back and read it and see if it’s the kind of newspaper report that is to be read literally.
We could look at passages like Job where ‘hasatan’ (the accuser in the original language) might actually be someone who works for god in that story. It would lead us to talk about two things : a) that the ‘devil’ is called the false accuser later in another drama (Revelation 12) and b) that both Job and Revelation are not newspaper reports and that maybe we should be careful about deriving doctrine from their literal reading.
Look – I know that I have been all over the place with this one but here is the bottom line: If you think that what is wrong with the world is that the a talking snake was really a fallen angel in disguise and tricked the first humans … you are not reading the Bible literally. You can say that you are – but you are fooling yourself. You are interpreting.
and as long as your interpreting, I am suggesting that you may want to update those tools by which you interpret so that when we read passages like 1 John 3:8“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” You don’t think hoofs and horn and red capes and pitchforks… but you understand that there is a devilish scheme at work in the world – it’s not by a single sinister character called Satan but instead it is rulers, authorities, and dark powers of this world. Then we ask “ are the governments, courts, corporations part of that?” We can ask “ are the systems, structures and institutions that oppress and suppress humanity part of this?”.
But as long as we keep thinking “dark lord of the under-world” we allow the schemes of the devil (that Romans 6 is talking about) to prosper. Instead, try thinking about it as a personification of the worst of humanity – a path that takes us away from justice, rightness and the way that God would have us go.