A Hermeneutics of Struggle

What do we do with the difficult texts that make us cringe so much to read that we never seriously consider preaching about them,

such as the rape and dismemberment of the woman in Judges 19, God’s request that Abraham kill Isaac in Genesis 22, or the injunction that “women be silent” in 1 Timothy 2:12? Phyllis Trible calls them “texts of terror.” I would include any text that:

  • attributes violence or criminal negligence to God
  • places entire groups of people in subordinate, damned, or otherwise uncomfortable positions
  • seems too dangerous or unwise to take seriously

Some churches dismiss these passages as the product of a time long past. Even those of us who are most committed to holding onto the whole of Scripture are secretly happy that many of these hard words have been quietly banished from the lectionary. And yet, they are Scripture, adamant about their status as God’s Holy Word.

I have come to believe that working with difficult texts is a lot more like wrestling than reading, and I have been encouraged by Jacob’s experience of wrestling in Genesis 32. For those who are ready to turn and face the difficult texts, here are a few tips I have learned from Jacob on how to wrestle well.

1. Assume, despite appearances, that the text is capable of blessing.

In Genesis 32:24, Jacob is attacked in the dead of night. The intruder is unexpected but even more unexpected is Jacob’s response. In verse 26, Jacob says to his attacker, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob assumes, despite all appearances, that the one with whom he wrestles is capable of blessing him, and he refuses to let go until blessing is given.

If I want to hold onto the passages that bother me most, I need to begin with a belief that even the most offensive of texts can bring blessing. Even those texts that have caused harm and death are capable of blessing. I must commit to wrestle with until I find that blessing. Some passages will not immediately provide reasons to hold onto them. In fact, texts of terror often give many good reasons to let go. The commitment to hold on cannot come from the struggle itself but must come as a prior commitment. It is an act of faith.

2. Know that you might leave limping and that God might get dirty.

Jacob leaves this wrestling match with a blessing, but he also leaves with a limp. It is a wound that he carries with him and that Israel remembers “to this day” by not eating the tendon where Jacob was hurt (verse 32). The wound becomes as much part of the collective memory of Jacob’s wrestling as the blessing.

We will surely let go of Scripture if we are not willing to be hurt by it. As an ordained woman, it pains me to wrestle with texts that seem to command my silence. My spirit limps from the struggle. But I have learned through struggling with those texts that I do not get to make God into what I want God to be. In embarking on a life with God, I take hands with one who will most certainly offend me, disagree with me, and ask things of me I would never ask of myself. I have found comfort in learning that God is beyond me and my ideas. My limp is a daily reminder that I worship the God of heaven and earth, a powerful God whom I can wrestle, but not control.

But this struggle is not one of simple obedience and acquiescence. While we might leave limping, God might get dirty too. For those of us who believe in the goodness of God, this is a difficult truth to accept. The word “wrestle” comes from the Hebrew root `bq, meaning “dust.” To wrestle literally means “to get dusty.” Often, texts seem difficult to us because they depict God as angry, hurtful, or negligent. Perhaps the most important thing we can do in learning to take Scripture seriously is to refuse to explain away the dark sides of God. Perhaps we must learn to let the Bible throw a little dirt on God, believing that God can survive getting dusty with us.

3. Expect a name change.

Finally, wrestling with God’s Word will change who we are. In the Old Testament, names have meaning. A name tells us who a person is and shapes who a person becomes. Jacob means “he grasps the heal.” Jacob gets his name by wrestling in the womb with Esau. When Jacob wrestles with God, his name is changed to Israel, meaning “he struggles with God.” Jacob moves from struggling with humans to struggling with God.

Sometimes, in struggling with a passage, I have found that my blessing comes when I make the move from worrying over baggage that the world has hung on a text to wrestling with what God yearns to convey. When we learn to read with God’s concerns in mind, we learn to look beyond our own conceptions of what questions are important, what things are taboo, what can and cannot be said about God or asked of us. In doing so, we open ourselves to become transformed into God’s people.

How to preach these difficult texts is another question all together. But we cannot ask our congregations to consider them Holy Scripture unless we are willing to wrestle with them ourselves. We begin our pastoral witness by refusing to let go until we are blessed.