Before 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 acquaintance concludes?
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 it.
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 this.
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.”