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The Bible says 8

Heart in the BibleThere’s a lot of … ummmm… awkward stuff in the Bible (I’m using “awkward” to be polite). Recently, for example, I wrote about Numbers 5:11-31 where a man (and in the Bible it’s always the man isn’t it!) gets a suspicion that his wife has been unfaithful and, having no evidence, the Bible has a bizarre ritual, which includes the woman standing in a dishevelled state with the priest proclaiming curses and the woman drinking a bowl of water, ink, and dust – you know the drill; and if you don’t – look it up.

What do you do with stuff like this? “Inspired” stuff?! Well, you can do what the video does – eisegete it (ie. read stuff that isn’t there at all into the text instead). Or you have the following options:

1) You say you take ALL of the Bible seriously. Every word in the Bible comes from God – as is; can’t mix fabrics in your clothes, eat shrimp, eat a cheese and hamburger, work on Saturday. And when you are suspicious about your wife’s faithfulness…

Then there’s a slight variation. I will call it

1a) You SAY you take all the Bible seriously. Actually just read, talk about, and follow the nice bits in the Bible. Ignore the stuff I’ve mentioned. Pretend it isn’t there. Pick and choose all the nice bits – there’s plenty there.

The alternative is

2) Don’t take ANY of the Bible seriously. It’s all Bronze Age and Iron Age nonsense; it has no relevance to today; toss out the whole Bible – good and bad. Some atheists/anti-theists state explicitly that the best way to become an atheist is to read the Bible.

Well good luck. Having tossed out the whole Bible, you start from nothing. Clean slate. No basic agreed values. No shared stories. No agreed wisdom. Nothing.

Some attempt to make a Bible for atheists. The Good Book: A Humanist Bible is one example – described as beer without the alcohol (maybe they were taking the proverbial!)

Then there is a third way – (a via media?)

3) This is treasuring the Bible; accepting some of it is Bronze Age stuff, some of it is Iron Age stuff that may be outdated. But there’s some wisdom there.

In the Bronze Age where the suspicions-about-your-wife rules come from – most probably a real Bronze Age man would have woken up and if he thought his wife was unfaithful, probably he would have beaten a confession out of her. The Bible, very wisely for its time, comes up with this ridiculous ritual – which would have been distressing for the woman – but at the end of it everyone had a chance to calm down and she had a bad taste in her mouth … and no bruises or worse. The Bible was challenging people to live a bit better than most actually were.

So the Bible sets a direction.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in the Old Testament was an improvement from two eyes for an eye and all your teeth for one tooth that was the norm of the time. And then the Bible continues the direction to Jesus saying don’t even take an eye for an eye…

So this third approach values the Bible, doesn’t take each detail as being directly applicable to our present context, doesn’t pretend stuff isn’t in the Bible (but takes the actual text seriously), but focuses on a trajectory, a direction – as Jesus does. It is the direction that the Bible challenges us to follow. And continue.

This means that after the careful exegesis of the text where we establish the precise meaning of a Biblical text, we would have another step left that is not there for those who follow position (1). After we establish what the text actually means – we still have to decide whether this is what God wants of us now…

What do you think?

This is the eighth in a series attempting to nuance the statement, “The Bible says…” I encourage you to read the story so far:
Textual Criticism
The Septuagint (LXX)
Hebrew vowel pointing
The canon
Translation
Continuity problems
Social Cultural Historical Geographic context
There’s also been a related post, “the pope says…

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14 Responses to The Bible says 8

  1. That Numbers passage strikes me as a ritual abortion. “the water of bitterness that brings the curse” and “if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you. The Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge”. As such, it has something to say to us today.

    The classical Anglican formulation is this: the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation. It does not logically follow that all things in the Bible are necessary for salvation. We know that to not be the case.

    Some passages are just not germain to us today. Some have application quite removed from their literal meaning.

    • Thanks, Ruldh. Your sentences “the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation. It does not logically follow that all things in the Bible are necessary for salvation.” are very helpful. Blessings.

  2. Are you reinventing the wheel here, Bosco?

    The Christian tradition of interpretation of Scripture has for a longtime handled the odd bits of the OT by reading them through the lens of the NT. Even our Anglican reformers pressed the virtue of the helpful distinction between moral, ceremonial and civil laws in the OT (though I do not think this can be used without the “OT through NT lens” approach).

    Nevertheless I agree with you that the idea of “trajectory” is important in working out how the Bible applies in the day to day lives of the church as a body and of Christians as individuals.

    The question remains, what if your trajectory discerned from Scripture is different to mine? Ditto when “your” could be, say, “Roman” and “mine” could be, say, “progressive Protestant”!

    • I’m pleased, Peter, that you see this approach as being part of the longtime Christian, wheel-using, tradition. I had not thought of this post as some sort of radical breakthrough. In practice people seem to mostly find in the Bible what they want to agree with deep down. In principle even those who hold to an authority that decides which trajectory to follow teach that the final guide is one’s conscience – even when it conflicts with the authority. Blessings.

  3. That’s why I am so disappointed that within the Anglican Communion we could not agree to come together under the authority of the Covenant!

    • Yes, understood, Peter. The “Covenant” solution to the issue of genuine Christian disagreement, like the papal solution to the issue of genuine Christian disagreement, has much to commend it. But IMO both also have serious issues. There is a danger of majoring on minors – the Bible is very clear about so much. Let’s work assiduously at following those parts and see if the unclear bits are still as significant for us then… Blessings.

  4. The Bible speaks to me in my particular situation often, and I treasure the book in the via media way.

    And I look at everything in the Bible through the lens of the Gospel, with special emphasis on The Two Great Commandments and the Golden Rule, and the Gospel is the trump card. Since I am no Scripture scholar, and I prefer to keep things simple, the practice works for me.

    Bosco, I do like that you point out that some of what seem like harsh rules in earlier times were better than the practices in even earlier times.

  5. Implied is the idea that the Bible is somehow the unique word of God and here is a way of thinking that will help you deal with the awkward and sometimes absurd bits. The Bible is an extraordinary collection exploring life, attempting to understand the meaning of life and our relationship with a godhead who understandably often got understood in the prejudices of the times= e.g. as masculine. I explore these things through the testaments and many other human writings. And we constantly draw conclusions from stories of time specific instances- e.g. Jesus had something to say about the Jewish form of divorce and the Christian churches one way and another still run around with it. Scholars probe the Bible to condemn or find no effective condemnation of homosexuality- some of latter quite clever. But all te Bible does is reflect majority notions of the time. I consider myself a Christian.

  6. This discussion reminds me of a quote from C. S. Lewis. Sorry, I can’t quote it directly — I’ve forgotten where I found it. However, he communicates the idea that he tends not to focus much on those obscure parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand because he has a hard enough time remaining true to the parts he does understand.

    My mind returns to that thought when ever I run across a passage like the one you mentioned here….

    Blessings,

    Michael

  7. I think Christ Jesus, not the Bible, is the fullest revelation of God.

    And I think Jesus is Lord of all things, including the Bible.

    So I try to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus.

    The most important question isn’t “What does the Bible say?” It’s “What would Jesus do?”

  8. Thanks for this interesting discussion point, Bosco. I agree with your middle way, that you take the Bible seriously for what it actually is – a collection of writings, some of which express Bronze Age (etc.) solutions to problems and situations. We are not taking the Bible seriously if we turn off our God-given intelligence before opening the pages of the Good Book, just as we don’t serve anyone by leaving our brains at the door when we go to church. How some people do this, I just don’t know.

  9. ‘We are not taking the Bible seriously if we turn off our God-given intelligence before opening the pages of the Good Book, just as we don’t serve anyone by leaving our brains at the door when we go to church.’

    Exactly! It’s just as important for a person in 2012 trying to be a Christian to say ‘no- that’s unacceptable’ as it is to define what is still important to say and do from the Bible.

    Every few months in the US a story will appear about how someone in a church persuaded people to give away all their money or sleep with the pastor or something else obviously wrong…I guess preaching attracts manipulative narcissists as well as those who really care about humanity.

    It does indeed seem crazy when people refuse to think for themselves in a church. But for many people belonging is more important, and not ‘causing problems’…and indeed in many churches that’s what is taught!

    I LOVE looking at the translations, the shades of meaning, the oldest fragments of source texts, religious history- though I am aware some people find it very boring!- but for me that’s exactly what brings it to life, and how such old writings become relevant and inspirational in our own era.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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