In reality I’m going to discuss framing the questions on the test passages I quoted last time, but in doing so, I need to highlight the way Christians contribute to a misunderstanding of one another, and by non-Christians who don’t understand how many of us use the Bible.
There is, of course, that vocal group of Christians who claim that they take the Bible literally and follow all of it. Their loud voice tends to drown the rest of us out. But one can easily debunk any claim to follow all of the Bible, unless that claim is properly defined by a tradition or method of interpretation.
But non-fundamentalists contribute to the idea that the really, truly holy and most valid Christian approach to the Bible is Biblical literalism. We do so primarily in two ways:
- We use the claim that we don’t take the Bible literally as an answer to anything.
This is not so much a liberal thing as a mainline thing. In this case by “mainline” I mean those old and established denominations to which so many people belong just to be known as church-going people. When confronted by almost any Biblical claim that is counter to their tradition, they will say: “We don’t take the Bible that literally around here.” Or something like that.
But that may not be the point at all. One may be hearing a passage that was intended quite literally. For example, if you are reading Leviticus and it commands animal sacrifice, the point is not that you don’t take it literally; it’s a literal command to do a literal thing. As Christians we don’t do that because of a number of passages such as Acts 15. I will probably spend a whole post on Acts 15 before I’m done.
The reason for this kind of abuse of the word “literal” is simply that many Christians are quite unaware of what the Bible actually says, and so they feel the need of an easy way to dismiss any claim regarding what they do or don’t do in church.
- They discount passages without admitting it.
Now let me be clear here. Many of these passages need some sort of discounting in order to apply in the modern world.
I discussed this in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method, in which I called it “text trimming.” The problem is not that the texts are trimmed; the problem is that they are trimmed without consideration to any consistent style of interpretation.
I use as an example Exodus 21:15 & 17 which call for the death penalty for cursing one’s parents. I recall one class in which numerous members were willing to accept this as a command that should be applied today. I was a bit surprised and asked them if they would then take their children out to be stoned to death should they utter a curse against their parents. They were shocked and told me that wasn’t what they meant. “We mean that you should discipline your children properly!”
They really didn’t even see the text itself until well into the discussion. They’d discounted it so quickly on reading they were hardly aware that they were worlds away from that in which the command was given. For them, this meant corporal punishment. For others, it might well be discounted more. And I’m happy that it should be discounted. It is not, however, a figurative command.
Now how does this apply to my test passages? I want to make clear here that the problem with the passages I cited is not that I don’t like what they say. My feelings about what a passage says do not impact what it’s now dead author meant to say. The ancients said many things that I don’t like. God is represented as saying things that I don’t like in scripture. My dislike of the statement doesn’t alter the intent of that statement.
When we phrase the problem in that way we open things up for non-Christians to point out that we are simply taking what we like from scripture, for more conservative Christians to suggest that we are discarding passages at will, and for those more liberal to suggest that we haven’t moved far enough.
So when Numbers 31:17 says, “Now kill every male among the children, and kill every woman who has had sexual relations with a man” I don’t like it. But that is not a problem for interpretation. The meaning is clear. You can read it in context. This is a command. Moses did not like the fact that the people preserved the women and the boys alive and he is now ordering them to be killed. He will exempt virgin girls, who may be taken as spoil. There’s no problem figuring out what the command would mean at the time.
So what does constitute a problem for interpretation? If I were working strictly within Judaism I would have to look eventually at the prophetic statements regarding eventual salvation for the gentiles. At a minimum I would have to ask when and why the attitude changed. If the Israelites were to treat the aliens living among them as their own (Lev. 19:33-34), why the difference here? I’m skipping over numerous answers to those questions because here I’m simply wanting to point out what does create a question that must be answered, however easy it may be.
Finally, if you represent God as a God of love, who does not desire the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32), then how can God command all of these deaths? Again, I’m using the Old Testament, and one closely tied to the priestly tradition, in order to keep the two viewpoints close. Again, I’m not continuing into attempts to answer these questions. Some readers are going to see obvious answers, but I’m not ready to go there.
Thus what I believe constitutes a genuine issue of Biblical interpretation is not my dislike of a text, but rather the fact that I am presented with at least two pictures in the Bible which seem not to be wholly consistent. The interpretation of the passage for its time and place may be clear, but what it means for me or what it meant for other generations of believers who used it as scripture becomes less clear because of apparently conflicting pictures.
Procedural Notes: I’m going to try to write these a bit shorter, though it will take me several more posts at least to get where I’m going. I also need to do an excursus (or more) showing the prevalence of non-literal interpretation throughout Christian history.
Continued from Interpreting the Bible VI