Discussions concerning certain passages of the Bible are difficult. How do you explore dispassionately the accounts of judgement and destruction? How do we examine a passage concerning slavery in light of prevailing social attitudes?
Let’s focus the discussion for now on the Old Testament, particularly the passages of biblical law. I won’t go into too much detail – if you have a working knowledge of the Bible you’ll be familiar with the sort of thing I mean, and I don’t intend to attempt a verse-by-verse breakdown in a single blog post. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, I can strongly recommend that you take a look – it’s a great read! (Although I’d recommend starting with Matthew or John and reading the New Testament first – it will make more sense that way).
Let’s start with the simple stuff: the passages of law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are literal. When it says “Don’t eat camels”, it means not to eat camels; when it says “Cancel all debts at the end of every seventh year”, that’s what it means, too.
But they are also instructions made to a specific people who lived in a particular cultural context. That is not to imply that they have nothing to offer us today: just that we need to understand the context in order to understand the intent behind the instructions, rather than simply focussing on the letter. The people to whom the Law was given were surrounded by all sides by barbarous and cruel peoples. Come to that, they were pretty barbarous and cruel too. The Law was given to teach them how to transcend that state and become a people fit for God. Some of it is practical, and has obvious health or social benefits. Some of it is ceremonial, and seems more arbitrary to us, but these customs may have had important psychological motivations. Some of the customs may have been simply to differentiate God’s people from the surrounding nations. But the context is the key.
The oft-quoted passage of “an eye for an eye”, for instance, is not saying “revenge is good”. It was said in a cultural context of escalating blood feuds (which, come to think of it, still describes large portions of the world), and the intent was to stem that escalation. “Don’t exact vengeance beyond what is dictated by justice” may be a better way of understanding that passage. That is to say, that if someone wrongs you and you are justly recompensed for that crime, do not take further revenge on him.
Likewise, I believe that many of the historical passages of instruction and law must be understood in a historically and culturally contextual way if they are to impart meaning that we can relate to today.
Here’s the problem, though: How do we interpret today, in our cultural contexts, what the “intent” of the law was? How do we avoid mis-using scripture to inappropriately justify our own ideas and prejudices, given that we have so little understanding of ancient Hebrew culture?
I suggest that the correct “filter” (and I use the word cautiously) through which we should interpret scripture is trying to understand how it relates to Jesus’ teachings and to the Epistles.
A recurring theme in the Gospels is Jesus correcting pious Jews who have followed the letter but missed the intent of the law. His teachings and actions, as recorded in the Gospels, reveal to us the character and person of God at work in human society. As such, they provide the “author’s perspective” when trying to understand some of the more confusing and difficult passages in the OT.
I would suggest the writers of the epistles as more appropriate guides than the Old Testament prophets, too. This is not to say that I consider Paul or Timothy or James to have been more “spiritually enlightened” or “in tune with the mind of God” than the great prophets of the OT were, but because the epistles were written within the context of the New Covenant in which we also live. The epistles were also mostly written for Christians living and worshipping in communities and churches which were at least conceptually similar to our own.
The death and resurrection of Jesus changed many things about the law and the way in which it relates to our interaction with God. It did not change the intent of God’s will for our lives, but it did change how we are able to live our lives in God’s favour and following His will.
Paul gives us some indication of what that would look like in his epistle to the church at Colossae:
“… you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” (Col. 3:12-15, NLT)