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(a Biblical rule of thumb)
I start I should qualify myself by saying, like Paul, that the words that
follow are mine. I don't claim any divine inspiration for the following
"rule of thumb" In fact, my mother told me this when I was quite young.
But I think it is a critically important principle; it has helped me find
my way out of many an ethical minefield, and I think it can illuminate a
lot of the arguments which rage about the contents of the Bible.
Recently in a message-board conversation I said that
one reason I read the Bible is that "it is beautiful."
One of the other inhabitants of the board responded
with disbelief. How could I see the Bible as beautiful
when it was packed from cover to cover with cruelty,
misogyny, genocide, infanticide, oppression of women,
sexual abuse, male domination, slavery, despotism and
every other social ill? The response totally threw me.
I had not realised up until that point that many
people see the Bible not as a litany of grace, but as
a guidebook to pious evil - "how to be unpleasant but
still seem holy."
So how do these two views mesh? Am I wrong, and him
right? After all, what he says about the Bible's
contents is true. Is what I have been using as a lamp
for my feet really a blacklight, as this message board
I don't think so, and the reason is really very
simple. The Bible is packed from cover to cover with
all kinds of unpleasantness. Why? Because it's largely
a history book, and that's what history is like.
That's what human beings are like. And that brings us
to what, to me, is the most important guideline in
understanding the Bible:
Just because the Bible describes it, doesn't mean the Bible condones
An example will help to illustrate what I mean. For
many years, so my mother tells me, opponents of
feminism would use as a weapon text the start of the
book of Esther.
The story is an unpleasant one - the King, in the
midst of a banquet, called upon his wife, Vashti, to
parade her in front of his lascivious nobles. She
refused (can we blame her?). The King divorced her,
kicked her out of the palace and went looking for
another wife, by calling a huge crowd of young girls
to his palace and effectively raping each one in turn
until he found the one who pleased him most, who would
become his wife.
The opponents of feminism used this story to
illustrate the great crime of a wife disobeying her
husband's wishes. To them, the King's reaction was
"justice," and the story was evidence that the Bible
condemned feminism. Can you believe it?
Where did their error lie? In the assumption that
because the Bible gave an account of this typically
despotic and abusive act on the part of the King, that
it condoned his behaviour. That is simply not the
case. Nowhere in this passage are the words, "And what
he did was right," "and God smiled upon him," "and it
was credited to him as righteousness." In many other
places in the Bible we can find enough clear
prohibitions of lustful behaviour, pride, abuse of
marriage, disrespect of others and casual treatment of
sex to conclude that the villain here was the husband,
not the wife.
And that's the key. The Bible tells how Lot sent his
daughters out to the perverted mob in Sodom, who raped
and murdered her. Does the Bible condone this action?
No. You disagree? Show me the words of approval; give
me chapter and verse. They're not there. And if you
search the Bible you'll find many clear words which
will convince you that such an act grieves the heart
of God. The Bible tells of how King David sent
Bathsheba's husband to war, knowing he would be
killed, so that the King could lawfully take Bathsheba
as his wife. Does the Bible condone this? No, in fact
God's prophet unequivocally condemns it - even though
David is elsewhere described by God as "a man after my
own heart." Clearly that did not prevent him from
sorely grieving God through his actions.
There are many other examples. And where we can be
misled is in assuming that where the Bible does not
explicitly condemn an action, it implicitly condones
it, or vice versa. This is simply wrong, and has led
to many misunderstandings - such as the belief that
the Bible does not forbid polygamy. It does, very
early on, in Deuteronomy 17 v17. The prohibition is
also implicit in Malachi 2, in statements about
"breaking faith with the wife of your youth" and "she
is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant,"
and in similar verses in Genesis. It is not clearly
referring to polygamy, but for me, the emphatic use of
the singular does not leave much room for the idea of
more than one life partner. But because so many key
Biblical figures had many wives, and it is not
explicitly condemned, we assume that God is OK with
That is a dangerous assumption, and it works in both
directions; it's the other side of the coin that
assumes that because there are no clear examples of
healthy homosexual relationships in the Bible, these
relationships are therefore forbidden. I am sure no
regular readers of Whosoever would ally themselves
with that assumption. The simple truth is that if the
Bible doesn't comment, the message is "no comment,"
and we must seek the heart of God through other verses
before drawing our conclusions. Otherwise we are not
listening for the voice of God - we are using the
Bible as a mirror for our own assumptions.
So how should we understand those disturbing texts
which seem to advocate actions which would deeply
grieve the God we know? The tactic I take is just to
read them very carefully. Don't listen to overtones.
Don't make assumptions. Don't assume that because it
is in the Bible, the Bible condones it. Look for
concrete evidence - phrases such as "this pleased the
Lord"; "he did right in the eyes of God"; and of
course, "the Lord said." Even a straight command,
"Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not," qualifies as the
voice of God if you believe in the authority of
Scripture; but be sure to test it against the two
Great Commandments, as it may be not so much "The Lord
says" as "The Lord said."
All in all, it's rather like a game of Simon Says.
"Simon says put your hands on your head." "Simon says
sit down" "Simon says stick your tongue out." But then
comes the unfortunate moment - "Put your hands on your
head," and you're so involved in the game that you
quickly follow the leader, scared of being caught out.
But guess what? You're caught out, because you didn't
listen for the words "Simon Says." You copied the
human leader instead of waiting for the divine word of
the omnipotent Simon (!).
So I try to be careful. "The Bible says this," yes,
but was it prefaced with "and the Lord said"? Is it
followed by "And God was pleased"? No? Then treat it
with caution, use your discernment, pray about it
before doing it. The Bible is a very matter-of-fact
book and more often than not makes no moral statements
on what it recounts.
So don't blindly copy the actions of humanity, just
because they're recounted in the Word of God. In other
words, before putting your hands on your head, listen
very carefully for the words "Simon says."
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