Tuesday 23 October 2012

Bible Say, Bible Do

The other day someone posed this question to me: is Genesis sexist? It got me thinking about the way in which we approach Scripture, with what we expect of it as much as anything else. So here's a bigger question for us to chew on: are we meant to agree with everything the Bible says?

I'm hoping that this blog already has a diverse enough range of readers that not everyone reading this will answer that in the same way (again, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments). If you respect the Bible as 'God's Word' (as I do) your knee-jerk reaction might be 'yes'. If we're talking about a book imbued with God's truth, a book that's as trustworthy as God Himself, then surely it must be 'yes'.

If you think about the question for a moment then there are countless instances where portions of the Bible aren't aligned with God's perspective. Why? Because Biblical authors allow human beings in their texts to open their mouths. The Bible's full of people questioning God, contradicting God, even full-on attacking God. The book of Job's a good example. Virtually the entire thing is dialogue, framed by a narrative intro and ending. And a lot of the stuff in the middle is pretty ugly. One of the most extreme points is when Job accuses God of making his life great just so He could get some pleasure out of sadistically tearing it down (Job 10:8-17). It's hardly what you'll hear preached from the pulpit. But there are different characters in the story who each get their own say - it's characters expressing opinions. We don't need to stress out if those characters contradict one another. It isn't that 'the Bible' (as an authoritative, canonical whole) is contradicting itself, just that a text within it is letting characters give different perspectives.

It gets trickier in narrative passages. Take Judges 21. Israel's just been through a bitter civil war where eleven of the twelve tribes have turned against the tribe of Benjamin. Israel has pledged that its women won't intermarry with Benjamin's men but doesn't want the tribe to die out completely. The men of Benjamin need new wives to continue the family name. So, first, they burn down one of the cities that didn't take part in the war and force 4,000 women from it into marriage. Then, when there's still not enough to go round, they come up with this cunning plan:

So the elders told the men of Benjamin, "Go and hide in the vineyards. Watch for the young women from Shiloh to come out and join the dancing. Then run out from the vineyards and take one of the young Shiloh women and return to the land of Benjamin. If their fathers or brothers come to us and complain, we will say: 'Be kind to the men of Benjamin. We did not get wives for Benjamin during the war, and you did not give the women to the men of Benjamin. So you are not guilty.'  
Judges 21:20-22

Frankly, that's shocking to us today. Am I supposed to read this and nod along, taking it as a model for my life? ("Kidnap's the way forwards - at least it skips out that whole tedious dating phase..."). I think it's plain-as-day that's not the case. The text just tells the story, relaying the facts. That's not to say that it doesn't have a message or an ideology - actually, I think there's a lesson here in not making hasty promises (like Israel's pledge not to intermarry with Benjamin) that you'll later regret. Sometimes the Bible itself will guide us as to how we're meant to interpret it. In this passage we're pretty much left to draw our own conclusions. Personally, I don't have any qualms in condemning the kidnapping and forced marriage of a woman as a violation of  her dignity and honour. Notice that it's the elders of Israel who say that this is justified ("you are not guilty"). Not the narrator. And certainly not God. The tragedy as I see it is that confusing stories like this can persuade people not to read the Old Testament (in particular) out of a well-meaning assumption that God must be agreeing with everything that's going on.

What I'm not saying here are two things. Firstly, I'm not denying that there are Biblical texts that have their own challenges and which beg their own significant questions. Secondly, I don't see the Bible as a neutral, take-what-you-want-from-it artefact or think that its meaning is somehow lost in layers of bizarre ancient culture. The Bible is God speaking to us right now. It's meaningful in our culture and has the authority to cut us to our core (Hebrews 4:12).

What I am saying is that our reading and interpretation should always be sensible and intelligent, bearing in mind textual context, genre, who's speaking, historical context etc. Sometimes it'll be obvious what God means us to think about something said or done. When it isn't we should be wary about assuming God's agreement in every detail.

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