Seeing the forest for the trees
There’s a silly anecdote going around according to which a simple-minded Christian wants to find out what she should do in a given situation. She decides to let the Bible give her the direction she needs, opens it randomly, and lets her finger fall randomly upon the page.
The sentence her finger points to reads, “And Judas went and hung himself.”
Distraught, she reasons that if that is to be her direction, she better seek confirmation. Letting the Bible open where it will, again, her eyes this time fall upon the following sentence: “Go and do likewise.”
Groan, I know! Hopefully no one would be this naïve to think that the Bible gives direction in a magical manner such as this. However, sometimes even a sophisticated mind can get the impression that the Bible is really not good at giving advice, or direction of any sort – at least not to a sophisticated person in this (post)modern age.
This is written in response to the letter to the editor of the Almanac entitled “Bible values do not translate well into modern context” (July 24, 2013, p.A4). The writer professes love for and indeed fascination with the Bible, and mentions that he teaches it in a university setting. At the same time, he denies that “this rich tapestry of voices” could possibly function as a “moral code for this wonderfully diverse country of ours”.
I do wonder where the moral code for this country is actually based on according to that writer, but that’s not the point of my letter today. What I do want to question is the main body of his letter, in which he cites one passage after another—out of context—to prove that there are different “voices” at work in the Bible that, by extension, would lead to a whole array of different moral codes, rather than to one unified one.
To make his point in regards to the question of marriage, e.g., he cites passages that give commands (e.g. Matt 19:4-6) on the same par as a passage from a narrative (2 Sam 12:8). He also makes it seem that temporary commands, given in the context of a society in which an unmarried woman had little chance of escaping poverty, and thus actually meant to be helping her (Deut 22:28, 29—compare with Deut 22:25-27), are on the same level as a command grounded on the foundation of human origin and biology (Gen: 2:24).
And finally, the article’s writer draws the parallel between the prohibition of homoeroticism and the institution of slavery, which others in the homosexual-rights movement have liked to call up, as well. The Bible speaks out against homoeroticism, but it also speaks out against slaves running away from slave owners. To us in a thankfully more enlightened age, the Bible is obviously wrong on both counts—so the argument goes.
It is true that the Scriptures encourage obedience to the authorities across the board. At the same time, they insistently urge the faithful to put others above themselves, no matter who they are (Luke 14:11; Romans 12:3). In the case of a runaway slave, the Apostle Paul himself sent him back to the owner with the clear expectation that as a Christian, the owner would welcome the former slave as a brother (The Letter to Philemon).
….It can obviously be time-consuming and challenging to find out the context of a given passage in the Bible and then to decide whether one is looking at a narrative, a description of things that went on, or at a command. In the case of a command, it is yet another task to find out whether it is a timeless “moral law”, part of the “moral code” that Christians do find in the Bible, or part of ceremonial or cultural laws that were meant for the context in which they were first given, but need not be continued in a post-New Testament age.
It is definitely quicker and easier to pull seemingly absurd statements out of the Scriptures, and then turn and walk away from the assumption that there’s any unifying, redeeming purpose in and throughout it all.
To see the red thread of God’s love for humankind, expressed in His will for its behavior and His patience with its misbehavior, run all the way through the pages of “the various documents collected in the Bible”, takes understanding of the background of each document, of the context of each passage, as well as of its intent. It takes seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak—seeing the complete picture created in the mosaic. In other words, it takes time and effort, and yes, it takes grace.