Christians have long accepted the proposition that God acts in and through history. The idea that God acts in history suggests that history itself is, in principle, a legitimate source of revelation.
On one hand, this is a dangerous idea. It is at least as difficult to interpret God’s activity and Word in history as it is to interpret it in scripture, and in most cases probably even more difficult. Many of us have heard friends, relatives, and religious spokespeople make confident announcements about how this or that particular historical event is “God’s will.” If we were required to believe all of those announcements, we would have to wonder what the heck is wrong with God’s preference structure.
In other words, reading history as revelation is no easy task. We are no doubt always justified in having faith that whatever God is doing in and through history is moving in the direction of justice and love. We are no doubt always called to respond to that divine direction by aligning ourselves with it rather than against it. We are no doubt expected to devote ourselves to the discernment that call requires. We no doubt often get it wrong, even when we are trying, which we aren’t always. So the idea that history might be a vehicle for God’s self-revelation doesn’t pan out well as a justification for holding short-term certainties about this or that particular action or policy.
On the other hand, the idea might have a different and possibly helpful hermeneutical consequence. It might warrant using the long-term “lessons of history” as interpretive guides. That is, it might warrant using some things we know from experience as checks on exegetical conclusions. In a colloquial sense, it involves posing the question, “and, how’s that working for you?” to readings of scripture.
For example, consider the “ban” in early Israelite life, a perennially troubling reality of the text of Joshua, and a recent issue for reflection in my own small world. Residents of the 21st century have ample grounds for thinking that genocide is wrong, and that its consequences are evil. We can and should have learned the lessons of the sadly non-exhaustive examples of US westward expansion, genocidal colonialist policies in the Americas, Armenia, the invasion of Manchuria, the Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia … But that learning means that we can and should, justifiably, question the use of the “ban.” We can and should apply the lessons of history to our conclusions about the meaning of that practice. We might even have permission to wonder whether the only reason it appears in ancient scripture as an approved practice is because the people who were making use of it were living in a world in which it was commonplace, and hadn’t yet made a world in which it could be effectively proscribed. [After all, what less-than-just-and-loving practices are we, ourselves, still being allowed to get away with?]
To the extent that we are making a world in which we have limits on acceptable practices in war, and are identifying that world as desirable, we are presumably learning, in the direction of the justice and love we are supposed to be aligning ourselves with. To find ways to read texts like Joshua 6 that don’t simply put a command to kill everything that breathes into God’s mouth in an unequivocal way – to call that reading into question, on the grounds of what we have managed to learn from history – seems responsible, and faithful. Presumably, God would like us to have learned something from the past three thousand years or so. How could learning like that fail to affect the way we read scripture?