Wrestling a Meme Like This
Yesterday a friend of mine asked a great question about a meme that’s been circulating on social media. I tried to answer him in a comment, but as I’ve been thinking about this question, I’ve realized it’s probably worth a larger discussion.
He asked about this picture (above), wondering why Christians are trying to defend humane treatment of refugees by using a verse from a book that also advocates practices that seem incredibly inhumane to us. For example, there are verses in the Bible that tell followers of God to stone sexual offenders. Have you ever thought about how brutal stoning is? When I was a teenager, I became furious over Deuteronomy 25:11 because it says that a woman who jumps in to help fight for her husband is supposed to have her hand cut off. So many of those old rules can seem cruel, sexist, and unfair.
Because I'm deeply empathetic and high on justice, I can't let hard questions go. So I really struggled with how to reconcile these parts of the Bible with the Jesus I claimed to love. I had studied the Scriptures too much to throw out the whole text. I knew that it would be scientifically impossible for so many different writers over hundreds of years to create a text that interlinks the way the Bible does. This sort of unity is difficult for a single writer—let alone so many different writers from so many different continents. So as confusing as the Bible is at times, the fact that it holds together in its diversity is a wonder that the even the strict processes of canonization cannot undo.
However, I live in a culture in which most Christians don’t study the Bible responsibly. They don’t treat it like 66 different books, written in different styles, by different authors, in different situations. They assume that “inerrancy” means that you can roll the whole thing into a big, flat sheet and cut out random verses like fortune cookie sayings.
I believe the Bible is inerrant in its original texts, and I believe those original texts are God-breathed and perfect. But I also believe God gave humans the ability to be discerning, responsible readers.
When Jesus spoke about the Old Testament writings, he often put them in historical and theological context. The Bible tells us that he took time to explain the Scriptures (Luke 24:27) to his followers--even the Creator of the Universe had to work to explain how He completed the Law. Luke says, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. “
So many modern Christians don’t do this. They just choose a single verse out of the middle of a complex section of Old Testament Law, and they try to use that verse to prove whatever they want to prove at the moment. This is irresponsible. And unless we are willing to find the larger context of what we are quoting, we are likely to appear foolish as we try to relate the Bible to the world.
Many of the quirky rules of the Bible are found in the “Law” period of Israel’s history. I think this period began around 1300 BC (there's some debate about the exact year, so I'm approximating), after Israel left Egypt. This is when Israel began to operate as a formal nation instead of as just as a string of individual families. During this time period, God told his story through his engagement with that nation, so things worked a little differently than they did when he was interacting with individual lives like Abraham's or Noah's. This Law period ended with the death of Jesus, which was in the 30's AD.
Jesus didn’t negate these Mosaic laws; he completed them. That concept probably deserves a post of its own. I'm not sure I will have time to unpack it fully here. But during these 1300ish years, God interacted with the world in an unusual way. There was a lot of symbolism and foreshadowing involved—but instead of just telling people what he was predicting in songs or stories, he was more of a playwright. He used real animals, and real human lives, and stern rules to bring his predictions into 3D.
That God would use real human lives to tell a predictive story was hard for me to process ethically at first because I don’t want anyone’s solitary mortal life spent on a story to help future generations. This is still one of the hardest things about the Bible for me. I feel compassion for people who lived and died under the Law, and I sometimes feel angry about how hard it was for them. I feel this especially when I forget that God is not like me.
But when I pause and think a little deeper, I know that God is the origin of truth and mercy, and that he was able to make sure everything he did was just. And because he transcends time and space, I believe there are elements to God’s engagement with the people of old I don’t in full understand yet. I’m not going to theorize about what was actually happening in Ephesians 4:8-9 or 1 Peter 3:19 (quite a few theologians have made definitive claims here, and I will let them be the experts), but I will say that those passages help me see that God isn’t bound by the dimensions that limit humans.
So, while the Law can be difficult for me at times, I also see how parts of it click together into a single story. And when I look at those connections, I'm amazed.
During the Law period, Israel was given scores of formal requirements that represented holiness. Some of those requirements seem bizarre to me today—especially laws about rape, menstruation, mold, spices, edible insects. When I was a kid, I would get so angry in these parts of the Bible because God seemed picky and impossible. However, other parts of the Law seem beautiful to me—exquisite, flawless metaphors that could be poetry by Donne or Shakespeare. But whether I like a particular law or don’t like a law, I can see why the “Law” as a whole had to be overwhelming and impossible because holiness is overwhelming and impossible for human beings.
To understand that, we have to go back to the origin of sin. So many Christians talk about sins as if they were simply crimes. But according to the Bible, the first sin didn’t look like what we would call evil.
Eve didn’t want something that seemed bad, she wanted something that seemed beautiful. She didn’t just eat an apple--Genesis says Satan told her she could be “like God” without God, and that’s what really happened when she ate that fruit. She was choosing to try to be everything good and godlike without staying in community with God.
In a universe of harmony, in the presence of a Trinity that existed in harmony, she was trying to sing in her own key, in her own rhythm. The music of the created order was disrupted as she severed the bond between Creator and created— it was self-deification.
The introduction of a bounty of microscopic laws pushed humanity up against its own declaration of independence. It forced a sort of breaking point that emphasized the root of a choice we all ultimately make. You want to be holy on your own? Alright. Here is holiness—all ten thousand tons of it. The Law showed us what we aren’t capable of achieving on our own.
The consequence for sin—Eve’s and all sin after hers—was death. This isn’t just a comic fire and brimstone thing— and it’s not just punitive. It’s almost like a law of physics. If God is the origin of life, and if humans are attempting to exist apart from him, death is the ultimate telos of mortal autonomy.
To choose to be out of union with the hub of vitality is to choose non-vitality.
The Old Testament sacrificial system (put in place for those who violated the Law) was also symbolic, predicting Jesus would come to restore what was broken. Reconnecting with God involves dependence upon what Jesus did because the chasm between human independence and communion with God is too vast to span by human effort or will. That bridge had to be built by the divine.
Anyway, when uniformed Christians cite random verses from that 1300 year period (as in this meme), they are often missing what is actually happening in those specific chapters of the Bible given for a specific time.
When Jesus fulfilled the Law, the curtain in the temple tore. The barrier to holiness is not just overcome through performance now (BTW, the Bible says performance never actually worked). Unity with Life was obtained by receiving what Eve rejected—falling into the harmony of the universe--receiving God and operating in union with Him.
What does transfer to 2018 from the Law, then?
We see Jesus and the NT writers reiterating many principles of the New Testament. Mercy. Forgiveness. Hospitality. Sexual purity. Selflessness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Instead of these things rising out of legal or national obligation, however, they are supposed to rise out of a whole different dynamic--the Spirit of God living inside us and through us.
So in a sense, we can reference OT laws like the one above because their underlying principles continue into the New Covenant. But we aren’t to follow them as members of a theocracy (like Israel), but as individuals who are part of a non-earthly Kingdom, resourced by God’s presence and power.
How many churches in America actually keep all this straight historically and contextually? I’ve seen very few.
Also, I have some limitations here as well, and you should know them.
First off, while I’ve studied this quite a bit, there may be pieces of it I have missed. If you are able to understand the writings of solid, academic theologians, you’d benefit from reading their thoughts instead of just mine.
Secondly, I’m trying to give an overview of several complex ideas simple here. There’s no way to do that without leaving out some important details, and I’ve also likely used a word or two that lead to inaccurate implications. If you catch one of those words, let me know, and I’ll try to tweak this summary to make it more accurate.
But as limited as this post is, maybe it will at least help provide a launching point for reading the Bible in its God-given historical and literary context. If you’re like me, you’re weary of people cherry picking verses to suit their political goals. Maybe I’m just underexposed, but I’ve hard a hard time finding groups of Christians who handle the Law in the way a literature teacher knows it needs to be taught. Just as in reading other works of ancient literature, understanding cultural and narrative context as well as historicity is essential for interpretation.