Old Testament in a New Climate

John J. Collins

The story of the tower of Babel is told briefly and enigmatically in Gen. 11:1–9. In the beginning, people had one language throughout the earth. They attempted to build a city and a tower, with its top in the heavens, to make a name for themselves.

The Lord, however, figuring that this was only the beginning of what they would do, went down and confused their language and scattered them abroad over the face of the earth.

This little story has been interpreted in various ways. Traditionally, it was taken to show how humanity is kept in its place by a jealous God, but it also admits of more positive interpretations. The city and tower can be seen as symbols of oppressive empire, and their destruction as liberation. Or the story can be read as a celebration of diversity. It has been invoked more than once as an allegory for the fate of biblical scholarship in the past century.1

In the mid-twentieth century there was a wide-ranging consensus on many issues, at least in the English-speaking world, grounded in an accepting attitude towards the biblical text with regard both to its historical accuracy and to its religious and moral values. This consensus found expression in the magisterial textbooks of Bernhard Anderson2 and John Bright,3 and in the Biblical Theology Movement, typified by G. E. Wright’s book God Who Acts.4 Today that consensus has dissipated, and, like the tower of Babel, its demise is variously lamented or celebrated.

A Postmodern Situation

The collapse of the old consensus is often associated with postmodernism. It is not the case that biblical scholarship has been influenced to any great degree by Derrida or Foucault (with a few notable exceptions). But the field has been influenced by what might be called a postmodern situation, characterized by pluralism and cultural warfare. Forty years ago, the Society of Biblical Literature was predominantly white, male, and Christian, even Protestant, and its meetings were small enough to be accommodated in Union Seminary in New York. In the meantime we have had the rise of feminism, increased participation by Jewish scholars, and the emerging presence of Asian and African American scholars. (The SBL annual meeting now attracts three thousand or four thousand members.) Because of this diversity, two slogans of postmodernism have gained currency: the importance of “voices from the margins” and the distrust of “metanarratives” that try to impose a unifying vision on the field.

Nowhere has the collapse of the old consensus been clearer than in the history of Israel. A small group of “minimalist” scholars such as Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies has garnered most of the attention here, but “the collapse of history” can be better gauged from the ostensible defenders of the historicity of the Bible, such as the archeologist William Dever. Citing an article from the New York Times entitled “The Bible, as History, Flunks New Archaeological Tests,” Dever asks, “but does it?”5 His answer is hardly the ringing denial that we might have been led to expect: “Perhaps the books of Exodus and Numbers do because … their accounts … are overwhelmingly contradicted by the archaeological evidence.” Moreover, “there is little that we can salvage from Joshua’s stories of the rapid, wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities and the annihilation of the local population. It simply did not happen; the archeological evidence is indisputable.”

This is the judgment of one of the more conservative historians of ancient Israel. To be sure, there are far more conservative historians who try to defend the historicity of the entire biblical account beginning with Abraham, but their work rests on confessional presuppositions and is an exercise in apologetics rather than historiography. Most biblical scholars have come to terms with the fact that much (not all!) of the biblical narrative is only loosely related to history and cannot be verified.

The story of the Exodus, to take the most central of biblical events, is still powerful even if we regard it as a myth. It has inspired Jews and Christians alike for some three thousand years. It expresses the hope that there is liberation from oppression, and this hope is more important than the historical details. But the moral significance of the Exodus story has also been called into question in recent years. Critics of liberation theology, such as Jon Levenson, have pointed out that liberation from Egypt is not an end in itself. It is followed by the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. But the story does not end at Sinai either. The goal indicated in God’s words to Moses at the burning bush was “to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod 3:8). This land was allegedly promised to the patriarchs in Genesis, but the Canaanites were not about to vacate it peacefully. The story culminates in the conquest of that land, as recorded in the book of Joshua, and involves the wholesale slaughter of the native inhabitants.

It is now accepted, by all but conservative apologists, that the conquest of Canaan did not actually happen as described in Joshua. But this does not relieve the moral problem presented by the story. Taken at face value, the text authorizes one group of people to take the land of others and slaughter the inhabitants. One of the most troubling aspects of the story is the way it has been used analogically over the centuries as a legitimating paradigm of violent conquest—by the Puritans in Ireland and in New England, by the Boers in South Africa, and by right-wing Zionists and their conservative Christian supporters in modern Israel.6 As the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said pointed out, when Exodus is read from a Canaanite (or Palestinian) perspective, it is not a liberating story at all.7 The force of the “Canaanite” perspective does not depend only on its application to modern Palestine. It is equally relevant to the experience of native Americans, black South Africans, Australian aborigines, or any other people whose lands have been conquered and expropriated.

This is not to say that the Exodus story cannot still serve as a paradigm of liberation. But as Jonathan Boyarin has argued, it does not just “work” automatically that way: “it is merely available for effective rhetoric in a wide variety of situations.”8 Historically, the Bible has been used as often to legitimate empire and colonialism as to inspire resistance and liberation. It is an inherently ambiguous document, and its effect depends to a great degree on the choices and perspectives of its interpreters. The Exodus and Conquest provide only one of many examples that could be cited. The problematic nature of biblical portrayals of women, and pronouncements on gender more generally, have been rehearsed too often in recent years to require repetition here. Biblical representations of the apocalyptic future are at least as problematic as those of past history.

The Quest for Foundations

The collapse of the old Bible-affirming consensus is especially problematic in the field of biblical theology. For the Biblical Theology Movement of the mid-twentieth century, history provided the foundations of faith, but these foundations have been subject to erosion. There is in fact a whole movement in contemporary philosophy and theology that makes a virtue out of necessity and argues that any quest for foundations, in the sense of unassailably certain beliefs, is not only futile but misguided. Truth is not the correlation of mind and reality, but a matter of coherence within a set of shared beliefs. There is no neutral ground from which to evaluate competing claims. The idea that there are no self-evident foundations on which our beliefs might be based is somewhat unsettling to most people when they first encounter it, but it has been welcomed by some, primarily Protestant, theologians. Karl Barth held that there could be no foundation, support or justification for theology in any philosophy, and emphatically rejected any natural theology. For Barth, faith provided its own certainty. For philosophical nonfoundationalism, however, certainty is not given to the human condition.

In the field of Old Testament theology, the most influential nonfoundational approach (in the theological sense) is undoubtedly that of Brevard Childs, who taught at Yale Divinity School for some forty years and died in 2007. Childs rejected the historical orientation of the older Biblical Theology Movement, and argued that the Scripture should be viewed as canon—that is, as authoritative writings for the church. “The divine imperatives are no longer moored in the past,” he wrote, “but continue to confront the reader as truth.”9 Childs did not insist on the historical truth of the biblical narratives, and he acknowledged the tension between history as critically reconstructed and history as portrayed in the biblical writings. But he had no solution to offer: “Biblical Theology offers neither a new philosophy of history nor a fresh theory of language, but rather it suggests that the church’s path of theological reflection lies in its understanding of its Scripture, its canon, and its Christological confession which encompass the mystery of God’s ways in the world with his people.”10 In short, history is a mystery. In this case the canonical approach amounts to little more than an insistence on a reverential attitude toward the text.

The Bible’s Embattled Morality

But a reverential attitude towards the text is not always appropriate. Another long time Yale professor, Roland Bainton, raised the question how the Old Testament could be regarded as authoritative in the light of the gross immoralities of the patriarchs.11 Childs responded that “everything that happened to the patriarchs has been encompassed within the rubric of God’s wonderful works and his mighty deeds of redemption.”12 But is the morality of the patriarchs any less problematic for being subsumed into God’s wonderful works? And while one might argue that the Bible does not approve the deceitful practices of the patriarchs, what are we to make of cases where divine commands are repugnant (the command to sacrifice Isaac, or to slaughter the Canaanites)?

Childs did not acknowledge an ethical problem with the Conquest at all in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture.13 This reluctance to acknowledge the problematic nature of the text seems to me to be a major shortcoming not only of Childs’s canonical approach but also of other postliberal theologies that speak of the text shaping the imagination and perceptions of the reader, or of the reader being conformed to the text.

No one in modern pluralist society can live in a world that is shaped only by biblical narrative. We are all heirs to other traditions as well, including the Enlightenment and sundry other intellectual movements. We may agree that none of these provides secure foundations from which to judge the others, but neither does the Bible. The biblical perspective is an important one that has informed much of Western culture, but it can be granted no presumption of priority in the postmodern age.

Fifty years ago, much of biblical scholarship had a theological orientation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, biblical theology has lost its centrality, and many biblical scholars see no reason to concern themselves with it. This, of course, is largely a result of the secularization of the field, of its migration from seminaries and divinity schools to departments of religious studies or Near Eastern languages. But if biblical theology is understood broadly as a concern with what the Bible has to say to the modern world, it should also be of interest in a secular setting. This requires that biblical theology take seriously the critiques, whether historical or moral, that arise from secular inquiry. What is needed in the current situation is a critical biblical theology that does not simply affirm the values of the text but weighs them in comparison and contrast with the knowledge and values we derive from other sources. There is much in the Bible that remains compelling in the postmodern world, beginning with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, or the calls for justice in the prophets. But there is also much in the Bible (the command to slaughter the Canaanites, the subordination of women) that is difficult to reconcile with its higher ideals. Biblical theology needs to emphasize the positive, to be sure, but it cannot gloss over the aspects of the biblical tradition that we now find to be problematic.14

I began these reflections by referring to the “postmodern situation” in which biblical studies, like academia in general, finds itself, and which is characterized by diversity of perspectives and cultural warfare. This situation poses an obvious danger of disintegration into cultures of mutual indifference. The pursuit of consensus, or of reasoned and disciplined conversation, remains an important and necessary goal. The more extreme forms of postmodernism seem to me to be destructive in this regard.

But the postmodern situation has brought some advantages too. The main gain of postmodernist criticism is that it has expanded the horizons of biblical studies, by going out to the highways and by-ways to bring new “voices from the margin” to the conversation. The persistent attention to the Other, or to other ways of reading, is a salutary exercise. These horizons will inevitably continue to expand in the twenty-first century. The breakdown of consensus can also be salutary, as it forces us to look again at assumptions we had taken for granted. Too often the Bible has been, and continues to be, taken to be the guarantor of certitude in disputed issues. It may be well to realize that almost everything about it is open to dispute.


1. For a fuller treatment of the issues discussed here see John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel. Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

2. Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1957)

3. A History of Israel (4th ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000, originally published in 1959).

4. God Who Acts: Biblical theology as recital (Chicago, A.R. Allenson, 1956).

5. W. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2003), 227. The article in the New York Times was dated July 19, 2000.

6. See further my comments in Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

7. Edward Said, “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution,’ A Canaanite Reading,” Grand Street 5 (Winter 1986): 86–106.

8. Jonathan Boyarin, “Reading Exodus into History,” New Literary History 23(1992): 532.

9. B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993): 86.

10. Ibid., 206.

11. R. H. Bainton, “The Immoralities of the Patriarchs According to the Exegesis of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformers,” HTR 23(1930): 39-49.

12. Childs, Biblical Theology, 679-80.

13. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).

14. For case studies, see my book Encounters with Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. His recent books include A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2007); The Bible after Babel. Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Eerdmans, 2005); and Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Augsburg Fortress, 2004).