Frankly--isn't it true that even the commands of the Bible are contradictory? At times it accepts polygamy, then other times monogamy, then other times seems to promote singleness. How can this be?
These can be difficult issues to understand, and it is often a significant stumbling block for people.
I recently read a book which gives some great insight on the subject, William Webb's Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. This is a tough, seminary-level text and not for the casual reader.
However, the main idea of the book is exceptionally useful, so consider this post to be a TL;DR version of Webb's analysis. (I will use my own terminology in this post; his is better, but takes much longer to fully develop for clarity. It won't work well in a single essay.)
So ... how do we read the Scripture if we want to understand the difficult topics?
It All Starts with the Meta-Story
In order to properly understand the Scripture, we must first understand the large, overarching story which it tells.
The meta-story of the Bible can be understood as four trees: the first tree is beautifully created and healthy. This represents our time in the Garden, with Adam and Eve. Then comes the Fall due to sin--and we have a dying, sparse tree. The third stage is the Redemption--God begins to heal the world of its brokenness (first through the Laws of the Jews, and later through the First Coming of Jesus). Finally, eventually He will come again (the Second Coming) and restore Creation to its proper mode, with all of us now fruit on the healthy tree, living together in the Kingdom.
So this is the meta-narrative of the Scripture.
- Genesis 1 and 2 describe the state of The Creation
- Genesis 3 discusses The Fall
- Genesis 4 through Revelation 20 describe The Redemption
- Revelation 21-22 describe The Restoration
Most Christians would see things this way, but only with regard to their salvation from sin. But the Bible is not only (indeed, not even primarily) about your individual salvation. The Bible is about restoring all of creation, bringing wholeness (shalom) to everything that sin has broken.
In other words, this four-part redemptive story is not just about you being saved; it is also how God approaches every subject you can think of, from violence to sex to money to slavery to the physical world. Every subject you want to discuss goes through the arc of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.
So when you read a Psalm, or Leviticus, or Romans, you are reading a part of the story as God moves us from the Fall to Redemption, over thousands of years of human history and hundreds of different cultures.
Every passage is taking the culture at its moment and trying to move it closer to Restoration.
The Laws of the Old Testament--many of which seem strange to us now--were all steps along the path of the redemption arc. Every aspect of the Old Testament is moving a culture from where it is to ultimately where it should be.
But (and this is key, so don't move on until you've processed it) each Scripture is addressing culture at a different phase along this path. No culture can jump from complete barbarism to Kingdom of God in one generation--it is sometimes a long process to restore life to a dead tree. So each prophet, each law, moves their culture closer to goal...and that means that in some cases we must follow the Scripture precisely as written; while in other cases we must ignore a Scripture which was written to a more-barbaric culture, because following it literally would be to move us back further away from the Kingdom values.
Let's take slavery as an example, because it is one in which our culture has progressed well.
- Creation Situation (Gen 1-2): There is no slavery
- The Fall (Gen 3): The curse subjugates women and results in the "weeds" of labor, from which poverty and slavery arise
- Redemption (see below)
- Restoration (Rev 21-22): There is no more slavery (cf. Galatians 3:28)
So when we read between Genesis 4 and Revelation 20, we are reading God's approaches to redeeming slavery, of moving it from slavery to not-slavery.
And so we see a redemptive path for slavery: God demands better treatment for slaves; He increases the value of slaves; He demands freedom for slaves every seven years, and so on.
Throughout the Law of the Old Testament, we see over and over God moving slavery on a path toward redemption.
Then, after Jesus, things accelerate even more. Paul on multiple occasions tells people that slavery doesn't exist in God's kingdom (e.g., Galatians 3:28). He demands that Christian masters are not only legal to slaves but kind to them. When Philemon's slave, Onesimus, escapes, Paul urges Philemon to make the freedom legal since both are Christians.
Today we live in a society which is very closely aligned with Kingdom values when it comes to slavery. We have outlawed slavery in modern countries and are adamantly opposed to seeing it in other countries as well. It is nearly universal in our day to see slavery as barbaric and cruel--and so it is.
So when we read passages about slavery in the Bible, we should not wonder about their backwardness or (God forbid!) be trying to go back to such a time! Rather, we should read it in light of the redemptive path. The Scriptures walk people from the broken and dying tree, and now buds are regrowing...our culture is largely healed in this way. God has brought Shalom in this area of our lives.
So you see, understanding (1) the redemptive arc from Fall to Restoration, and then (2) understanding where we are on that path are the two key aspects to analyzing whether we should follow a Scripture today in our culture.
No one thinks that it is okay to re-institute slavery as long as we follow the Old Testament laws for treating slaves. Why? Because we intuitively know (and see in the New Testament) that we are already at the end point, so to move backward to a prior command would actually be becoming less Christlike.
Slavery makes a great illustrative example because deep down we already all have processed the principle in that one case; now we merely need apply the same principle to other areas.
The Redemptive Arc
For this redemptive arc is actually present in any area of life. I will briefly sketch two more examples so that we may compare the three.
- Creation - No violence
- The Fall - violence starts almost immediately (e.g., Cain and Abel)
- The Old Testament takes a violent culture and starts a redemption path: POW treatment is improved, cruel and unusual punishment is outlawed ("eye for an eye"), personal vengeance is reduced ("Vengeance is mine, says the Lord"); irredeemably evil cultures are destroyed while cultures that can be changed are spared (cf: destroying worshippers of Molech; the Flood of Genesis 9; the redemption of the Ninevites in Jonah).
- In the New Testament, Jesus pushes the path even further: when struck, do not strike back; when punished, pray for them; when hated, love in return; when wronged, all responses should be non-violent; those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
- Final Restoration - "No violence" is completely restored
- Creation - Everything is shared equally and freely
- The Fall - Economies and income inequality makes money a source of power and greed a sin
- The Old Testament takes greed and begins to limit its power: you aren't allowed to charge interest; part of the field is required to be kept for the poor; the Temple protects the poor and the widow
- The New Testament pushes it further: Jesus calls greed the root of all evil in their culture; Jesus says it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle; the first Christians share everything they own freely and openly.
- Final Restoration - There is no more suffering...which includes no one lacking for what is needed and, therefore, no greed.
Notice that in these three examples, our culture today is in a different place with regard to each:
- The Good: We are well beyond the Biblical cultures with regard to slavery, and thus the Scriptures about how to treat slaves do not directly apply to our culture. We have already completed the redemptive arc in this regard. They are valuable to study and learn so we do not slip backward on the path, but otherwise do not apply to us today.
- The Bad: With regard to violence, we find ourselves somewhere around the culture at the time of Jesus--generally speaking, the rule of law is followed and respected, and punishments are (again, generally speaking) fairly applied. But our personal violence is still an issue, with murders and riots and wars all too commonplace. Thus Jesus' teachings still very much push us toward non-violence as a culture. We are approximately at the same level as the culture of Jesus' day, and thus find Jesus to be pushing us for redemption in His teachings.
- The Ugly: With greed, we are even further behind on the arc than the time of Jesus. We are now much more like the early Old Testament cultures than the cultures at the time of Jesus. We charge outrageous sums of interest on loans, we have the highest income inequality in recorded history, and our methods of caring for the poor and hungry are less sophisticated than the Jews 3,000 years ago. For this area, the idea of everyone just sharing in common (as in Acts) seems insane; we are all the way back pre-Judaism, with our Pharaohs and our commoners. We need to focus on social justice still in this area, protecting the poor from hunger, unfair loans, and ongoing long-term debts.
So you can see that not only does understanding a redemptive arc in Scripture help explain difficult passages, it actually helps significantly as we try and figure out what we as a Church should be pushing for in our culture. In our culture, violence and greed are major issues for we trail the Biblical standards even for their time in this regard, whereas slavery--which we in the West have conquered--was the major issue for our great-grandparent's culture.
Two Questions to Ask
So in any difficult passage, you should ask yourself two questions:
- How did this passage fit in the path of moving the culture at the time from the Fall to the Kingdom?
- Where along this path is our current culture?
If you ask these two questions, you'll find most of your questions being answered.
Two Modern Applications: Women and Sexuality
I could write (and may indeed write) full posts on these two categories later. But for now, let us write a brief summary about each.
With regard to women:
In the state of Creation, Adam and Eve were equal partners. We are told that Adam was not good alone, but that God created male and female because the two genders put together were complete. We find that the woman was the man's "helper"--which linguistic experts say should be thought of as a 'partner' in our terminology. During the Fall, we see that women were subjugated below men, and would always rebel against that--both her subjugation and the fights which result are part of the Genesis 3 curse.
Then we see in the end that men and women are against restored to their Edenic condition as equal partners: Galatians 3:28 says there is no more woman or man, both are one in Christ Jesus. However, the genders are again still in place, each fitting like yin and yang to complete the other. Equality does not mean elimination of masculinity and femininity, but it does mean and end to the effects of the curse (namely, subjugation of women and a power struggle between them).
We see this redemptive arc throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, we see women elevated to positions of leadership on occasion; we see inheritance rights expanded; we see women protected from rape and unlawful divorce; and we see women POWs given explicit protections. In the New Testament, these rights continue: we see women serving in roles as deaconness, prophetess, and missionary/apostle (Junia, cf book of Romans); Priscilla seems to take a lead role in training the preacher Apollos; and in fact women are given the honor of being the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
So by considering our two questions, we can ultimately see this redemptive arc, and then analyze where in our culture we are along the arc.
In our culture, in some cases with regard to women we are still woefully behind, and we as Christians should be pushing for greater protection, greater equality, and less subjugation of women. Strides have been made, but we are still far short of the goal. And yet in other cases, our culture is going off-track at times along a tangent in which femininity is itself destroyed. For example, watch supposedly-feminist films and note how often "strong woman" really just means "woman who does masculine things."
The Scriptural picture of redemption arc for women is one of true and complete equality, but not exact sameness. So we should be pushing for equality of genders, not ignoring the beauty of the yin and yang that God created in our genders. Destroying femininity is not the same as valuing it. We should never accept either the belief that a woman should be paid less than a man or the belief that a woman must work or must work like a man...both are errors. Women should be equal and yet free to be women.
So in some aspects we have done well here; in others, we still have far to go.
With regard to sexuality:
In the state of Creation, Adam and Eve were innocent and paired together one to one, with their genders biologically matching to produce children. After the Fall, we see all manner of barbaric sexuality--and indeed, that was part of the reason for the Flood (Gen 7). Depending on your interpretation, mankind was intermarrying either with Neanderthals or with fallen angels or with unholy, God-hating men. Even after the Flood wiped out most of that group, we see sexual sin continuing, with Noah seeming to be raped/fondled by his son (Gen 9:20-27); the Sodom and Gomorrah situation; incest between Lot and his daughters; and on and on.
So what is the redemption arc of sexuality? It seems from Scripture that the end-place in the Kingdom is a time of no marriage whatsoever (at least not as we do it, Matt 22:30), and Paul even pushes us in the direction of celibacy while on Earth as the ultimate good (1 Corinthians 7:8). So it seems this is the final sexual restoration--a return to innocence, where sex (if it exists) is done for fruitful multiplication, not to try and get things that sex can't actually provide (love, acceptance, satisfaction, etc.).
In the meantime, however, the Scripture redeems sexuality by pushing each culture from barbarism toward the Restored condition.
When we read it in this way, we see the Scriptures moving from animalistic wildness to polygamy to monogamy, creating a redemptive arc which points from barbaric lusts to self-control. The Scriptures see homosexuality, incest, bestiality, sex before marriage, remarriage after divorce, etc., as all examples of broken sexuality. Which is not to say that we should be hateful or not protect the legal rights of such people! But it is to say that their approach to sexuality is fundamentally broken and that their happiness and joy is only possible as they move along the path of redemption that Scripture shows.
Again, we can apply our modern questions. For the modern world in general very much likes the redemptive arc painted by Scripture when it comes to reducing violence, reducing greed, empowering women, and eliminating slavery. Those are all redemptive arcs in Scripture which align with our culture's current values.
When it comes to sexuality, however, this is different. Sexually our culture wants to become more like the Romans and Greeks, and less like the Jews and ancient Christians. But indeed, according to Jesus, the Jews and early Christians (though themselves off-base and broken sexually in some ways as well!) were further along the path than the Greco-Romans and modern America. That is why when we read passage about sexuality, we find that they (like greed and violence) are very much applicable to our current modern culture.
As you can see (if you've managed to read this far), Webb's approach of viewing Scripture is quite powerful (although to be clear...I've reworded it significantly so I could fit it in a single post; for example he provides not 2 questions but more than 18).
When you run into difficult passages--whether it is about violence or suffering or sexuality or women or slavery--you merely need to ask yourself two questions to make it more clear:
1. How does this passage move their culture along a path from the Fall toward Restoration? and
2. Where along this path is our current culture?
When you figure out what the redemptive path to Restoration looks like, and where we are in relation to it, then you can properly interpret virtually any passage.
Sexuality is supposed to move from animalistic free-for-all and into innocence, with the next-best-thing to celibacy being Christian matrimony. Hence our culture's laissez-faire view of sexuality is quite uncivilized and backward. Progressiveness in this case is in the exact opposite direction than our modern 'progressives' define for sexuality. We are well off in regard to sexuality in our culture--we are the dead tree, and need a lot of work to begin blossoming.
With regard to women, we have blossomed in many ways, and as we continue to become more and more egalitarian, we get closer to Kingdom values; we need only be careful not to go off-track and begin to deny the reality and beauty of gender. Women are to be elevated and made equal by honoring their femininity, not by destroying it.
Whereas with slavery, our culture is already nearing (or already at) the final, Kingdom-style view of complete outlawing of slavery and careful protection of the institutions of freedom.
Applying the same concept to other areas, we see that we have major work to do in protecting the innocent, violence, and greed/poverty, as well as sexuality and women's rights. While most of those align with traditionally progressive politics, in some cases what we today call 'progressive' is in fact moving backward on the redemption arc toward a more barbaric time, and we as Christians therefore should oppose that kind of movement.
All in all, this is a fascinating way to view Scripture, and I can already tell (after a month of chewing on the ideas) that this is going to be a landmark book that radically clarifies complex Scriptures for me. I can see referencing back to this article quite a bit, and I hope it was helpful for you, as well.