Encountering trauma in the Bible
Anyone who can sustain reading the Bible beyond the first chapter of Genesis will notice that there are difficult passages. The Bible’s stories are forged out of murder (Gn 4), rape (Gn 34), dismemberment (Jgs 19; 1 Sam 18), kidnapping and forced marriages (Jgs 21), forced migration and infanticide (Ps 137), slavery (Ex 21; Lv 25; Dt 15), genocide (Jos 1-12), cannibalism (2 Kgs 6-7), political corruption (1-2 Kgs) and social desolation (the Prophets). The metanarrative of salvation history is laced with loss.
People raised in liturgical traditions may be familiar with selected portions from these passages, but the contexts surrounding them have been cut away in compiling the Lectionary. Meanwhile, even those who have encountered these passages in Bible study or through their own reading might not have ever heard anyone preach on these passages directly. The net result is that large numbers of devout, Bible-reading, church-going believers have not been given the opportunity to dwell with Scripture where many moments of Scripture dwell: trauma.
Biblical scholars are not the only ones deeply troubled by the violence in Scripture and the violence done in Scripture’s name. Many believers—and many raised in the Christian tradition, even if they no longer practice or have parted ways with it—recoil from the frankness with which the Bible describes, and sometimes seems to endorse, these traumatic events. Simply turning on the news, accessing social media or even going about a daily routine leads to encounters with people who are suffering from intersections of religion and violence, both near and afar—if the person suffering is not you or I.
So what happens when readers, approaching the Bible with both curiosity and some internal conflict, come to Scripture and find only more agony? Some close the book and walk away convinced that the answers must be somewhere else. Some turn to preferred passages for comfort, inspiration or solace. Most people are somewhere in between. But none of these responses can erase these troubling and challenging passages. To adhere to a canon of Scripture, as Christianity does, means adhering to all of it, not just the parts that are easier to understand or that fit into our preferred theologies. In the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argued against “cheap grace,” readers of the Bible should not be seduced by the temptation toward reading “cheap Scripture.”
As an Old Testament scholar, working currently on the Book of Judges, I have spent many an hour pointing out passages, situations and biblical figures that often go unread or read past by even the most dedicated non-academic readers. I introduce them to men and women in Scripture whose bodies have been broken open by war on the battlefield and the home front, to torturous acts committed against enemies and women in service of what the untrained reader might chalk up to an archaic past. Yet all one has to do is turn to a newspaper or Facebook to read about the rates at which women are being killed along the U.S.-Mexico border, women who have been impaled, dismembered or made to “disappear,” women caught between organized crime and the never-ending “war against drugs” being played out in the United States.
The instinct to revile these episodes and refocus attention on events to come—namely Jesus—is common. To dwell with Scripture where Scripture is takes time and deliberate effort to overcome that instinct to flip forward to the familiar and comfortable parts.
The Bible Broken Open
The term trauma, meaning “wound,” comes from Greek antiquity. The range of meanings attested at the time includes being severely hurt, physical wounds, wounding, (military) defeat and psychic wounds. Over the centuries, studies of trauma have been part of various disciplines: mental health fields, literature and the arts as well as religion.
Scripture preserves an anthology of the struggle of particular communities to live out their relationship with God in their own particular eras, inevitably marked by the events of their time. As a result, older stories are preserved and reframed for later communities in light of recent events. This is very similar to what the homily experience should be at Mass. Scriptures are read, reframed in light of one another and brought to life for the living church as it exists today.
No event affected the production of the Old Testament, the theological foundation for the writers of the New Testament, like the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 587–86 B.C. Some scholars call the era that followed the Temple-less Age. If general readers of the Bible are aware of this period, they recognize it by what happened to the religious, cultural and political elite. They call it the Exile.
During the Exile, wave after wave of the elite were ushered into diaspora. If they had the power to cause strife, conflict or rebellion, Babylon removed them from their land.
Formal Yahwism, the religion of ancient Israel, was practiced at the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The Temple’s destruction and the exile of religious clergy eliminated its formal practice. For a modern-day practicing Catholic, imagine: 1) the destruction of all churches; 2) the exile of all priests, deacons and lay leaders; and 3) the desecration and elimination of every tabernacle containing the Eucharist. The loss would unimaginable. It would be traumatic.
Dwell here. Do not move forward yet. Do not be seduced by the temptation to anticipate Jesus and the Jesus-event. As Catholics are often reminded in the days preceding the Easter Triduum, “Don’t be so quick to jump to Easter Sunday. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.” In this case, there is plenty of time for Jesus, but dwell in the shadow of the fallen Temple first. Dwell with the traumatic loss of land, community, religious practice and how you think you relate to God.
In an academic course, this would be the point where we would break until next time, each student ending the class session on a pregnant pause. Each would be asked to reflect on what it would be like, feel like, to be confronted by events and displacement that affect one’s core theological understanding and deepest religious identity. With seminarians I go so far as to ask them to reflect for a moment on what it would feel like if events came to pass that eliminated the salvific effects of Jesus’ resurrection and thus our own hope of grace and resurrection as well. The access channel isn’t blocked. It is gone.
When students return for the next class or seek me out during office hours that week, many types of conversations emerge. Most of them are not about the class or the content but instead are personal. Most people just need to talk.
Some people raise questions about religion, theology, the Bible, politics, etc. that have not yet been answered for them. Others talk about life events that not only mark a distinct time in their lives but partially frame everything to come after it. The Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel describes this framing in his preface to Night: “Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings after Night, including those that deal with biblical, Talmudic or Hasidic themes, profoundly bear its stamp, and cannot be understood if one has not read this very first of my works.” The same is true of the Bible.
The temptation to read with an eye toward the Jesus-event and all its theological and spiritual ramifications is great. Why shouldn’t it be? After all, Christian communities are defined by belief in a particular theology about Jesus’ salvific nature, according to the tenets and traditions of the believer’s respective denomination. To put it less formally, Jesus is a really big deal.
As a result, there is the temptation to read the Bible, even in faith and sometimes because of faith, as consisting first of the Gospels, second the remainder of the New Testament, and third—at best—the “rest of the Bible.” The same faith that trusts the Gospels and the New Testament as Scripture ought to push us to read the Old Testament thoroughly. It is, after all, more than two-thirds of the Bible.
Reading the Old Testament within its own times and contexts is a virtue in itself. Each work was produced, edited and then arranged in relationship to other works. But if theological commitments and interpretive traditions require reading the Old Testament with attention to the New Testament, then the contexts of the Old Testament must still be read more fully. Let this type of reading generate greater appreciation and comprehension of the revelation proclaimed in the New Testament, the Jesus-event.
Reading the Bible slowly, fully and with attention to historical, cultural and theological developments allows the faithful to see that God meets people where they are. We are in process. We are at or reflecting upon critical moments. We have suffered traumas. We participate directly and indirectly in the traumatic experiences of others. We carry those traumas forward with us. We see our futures in light of the past. For some of us, the past continues to interrupt the present. We are in need of theological inspiration to help us craft a path back toward God when our previous paths have been challenged or destroyed.
Growing Into Scripture
The temptation to read Scripture quickly, to brush past the complicated, uncomfortable or violent parts is understandable. However, if we must be selective about which passages we read, then let us select passages that we have the ability to grow into. Let us read “costly Scripture.”
The first step toward “costly Scripture” is having our communities reading more Bible, period. We must be exposed to all of it: Old Testament, Deutero-canon/Apocrypha, New Testament. We must read beyond our Sunday school acquaintance with biblical events and figures. For some of us that means purchasing a Bible, opening the ones we have more often or attending Mass more regularly to hear the readings proclaimed Monday through Saturday. Any or all of these are good choices.
The second step is to ask questions. When we come into contact with new passages, with new people and events, especially ones that cause us to recoil, we need to ask some of the following questions: 1) Do I understand what is happening? 2) Why would someone do that? 3) Is this figure or event always portrayed the same way every time it is described, or are there distinct differences? 4) Who are the nameless people in the passage? 5) Who has power and how is it used? 6) Who is suffering, and why? These are not the only questions one can ask, but they serve as a starting point for many more.
The third step is to reflect upon the thoughts, concerns and experiences that emerge as we read. Where do we get lost while reading or listening to Scripture? Where are we drawn to pause and contemplate? Beginning to find answers to the set of questions from the second step should help us distinguish between questions about understanding Scripture and questions about understanding ourselves, and engage both more fully. Many times our experience of reading the Bible is consoling. We become accustomed to the notion, and expectant of the experience, that reading Scripture should bring peace or solace to our hearts and minds every time. The emotional satisfaction becomes less about engaging Scripture and more about a spiritual balm needed to soothe the rough patches of life. While Scripture can certainly offer consolation, that is not its sole or primary purpose—and costly Scripture will offer us more and different experiences than just the consolation we may have come to expect.
Taking this costlier view of biblical history—including the trauma—will point us at the resilience of the people of God. In each instance the faithful took everything they had to God. They took their anger and despair, their logic and emotion and their faithfulness and fallenness to God because they knew that no matter what befell them, they remained in relationship to God, as close to them as they were to themselves.
Reading costly Scripture allows readers the opportunity to bring their whole selves into dialogue with God through stories and events that range from awesome to awful. God is not porcelain. God will not break because human emotions and questioning can get real.
But if we reduce Scripture to only the parts that give us comfort or relief, then we are actively disengaging from God meeting us in the broken, disjointed and complicated parts of life. We can do better.
That is the challenge I face today, in early October, preparing to walk into a university classroom yet again with a changed lecture plan, preparing to address young people trying to make sense of the death of students, very much like themselves, lost to senseless violence in Oregon. They mourn their peers at Umpqua Community College. In their young lives, they have seen this occur all too often. What kind of God lets these things happen?
Today is not a day to discuss Noah’s ark, Samson’s strength or Daniel in the lion’s den. Today they need Scripture as real as their world. Maybe today we should talk about the massacre of the Shechemites (Gn 34) or sit in the shadow of the Temple and with the loss of life in our own midst. The Hebrew Scriptures often present questions to keep the audience talking after the story is over. Therefore, so shall we. What does God call us to do in the face of tragedy?