Exclusivism and tolerance in the Old Testament

Some of the aspects of this image have long been stumbling blocks among the readers of this library of sacred texts, both outside and inside the church. Three short examples may suffice:

It has been argued that one of the most famous ancient exegetical approaches to the Bible, the so-called allegorical interpretation, was meant among others to deal with this violent face of the divinity and his holy nation. The use of mythical-symbolical language both within and outside the Bible might lend some legitimacy to this early approach, though it would obviously contradict the nature of these particular texts on which it is imposed, most of which appear to be anything but mythological.

Later readers with less enthusiasm for this spiritualising approach and with more sympathy towards the literal-historical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, for instance the protestant exegetes of the Middle Ages, wished to exonerate God and the inspired authors by assuming that some kind of accommodating language had been used in view of the current readers, taking thus the burden from the side of the holy writings and laying it on the shoulders of the contemporary reader.

Historical criticism of the 19th century and beyond has whittled away the historicity of many of the problematic narratives (as well as other types of texts). It was shown that the accuracy of Joshua’s dealing with Canaan, as well as its original programmatic formulation within, e.g., Deuteronomy, are anachronistic and sometimes idealistic accounts from much later periods. For many modern theologians this has brought a refreshing breeze in the hermeneutical conundrum. For if the historical accuracy of these texts can be questioned, in favour of an anachronistic literary-rhetorical reevaluation, that would at least partially exempt the theologian from further explanations. It is not an issue of historical reality, it is merely a rhetorical-literary reality. Still, the question why the holy authors felt the need to take refuge within this verbally aggressive world, remains unclarified. Once the ideology is real, the historicity of the illustration hardly matters anymore.

While recognising the problematic aspect of violent exclusivism within the Old Testament, these approaches are still reluctant to turn away from these texts, evidently due to an a priori attitude towards the texts as authoritative sources of divine truth.