Opening the Lines of Communication

Contemplating contradiction through conversation
Heath Dewrell

For generations, believers have looked to biblical texts to help them understand that which puzzles them. For Heath Dewrell, Princeton Seminary assistant professor of the Old Testament, that tradition is alive and well, both in his theological research and in personal questions regarding faith.

“I’m interested in ritual, and especially the rituals that are harder for us to understand,” he says. One of Dewrell’s personal challenges is reconciling intolerances within the religious community. “The gospel demands full inclusion of all believers,” he says. “How can I fully commit to the full inclusion of all believers while even including believers who disagree and would themselves exclude many faithful believers?”

For Dewrell, this isn’t a contradiction so much as it is a conversation.

“There’s room for theological diversity throughout the Bible,” Dewrell says. “Different biblical authors believed different things.” It’s the job of the scholar, then, to welcome, interpret, and even reconcile these differing beliefs if possible. It’s what he teaches in his courses on biblical interpretation, and it’s a practice he brings to his own faith.

“The Bible shows us many sides of the same issue.”

In his book, Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel, Dewrell examines this phenomenon but also a related paradox. On the one hand, there exists biblical evidence for all different kinds of child sacrifice; on the other hand, the Bible contains rhetoric condemning the practice.

“Acts of religious violence, and specifically child sacrifice, are especially interesting to me because violence against children is one of the most abhorrent acts we can imagine today,” he says. This practice, he adds, seems to have played a part in ancient Israel, to the extent that children were prime targets for violence and especially religious violence.

While the various traditions preserved in the Hebrew Bible nearly unanimously reject the practice,” he says, “they strongly disagreed about important issues like how child sacrifice came to be practiced in the first place. Was it a foreign 'pagan' practice? Was it something that Israel’s God had allowed to happen due to Israel’s disobedience? Was it all due to some sort of theological misunderstanding? The biblical writers agree in general that child sacrifice was never something that God wanted, but they exhibit remarkable diversity in the details.”

Again, the approach Dewrell prefers is conversation — allowing for and seeking to understand multiple interpretations of the same text. “The Bible shows us many sides of the same issue,” he says. “Being faithful to our convictions while also maintaining relationships with fellow believers who strongly disagree with some of those beliefs is possible, although sometimes difficult. I don’t pretend to have all the details worked out yet.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Author, Speaker, Ordained Minister

Danielle Shroyer, Class of 1999

“To be in a community where I got to hear so many different perspectives—that was profound for me. I’m grateful for the curiosity, for the practice of learning that was cultivated for me at Seminary.”