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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Shouts and Whispers: A Hermeneutical Metaphor

My friend urged me to write about them. My approach to biblical interpretation has helped her resolve a weighty load of frustration and unanswered question about how to deal with Bible conundrums. She has never been content to believe something just because, and neither have I.

We have to begin with the understanding that God is, that he is locatable rather than being an all-pervasive, non-localized force. He may well be omni-present, but he is not merely a conglomeration of all things everywhere. And he is logical. He is compassionate. His reason is beyond ours, but not in the sense of it being incomprehensible. He reveals himself to mankind bit by bit because the gap between his understanding and ours is so immense. He steps into our primitive world with our archaic customs and knowledge and changes us little by little. Change is always difficult. It’s frightening and dangerous and requires adaptation and care to make sure that it is a change for the better. It always produces debate, wars, and division.

The doctrine of an inerrant Bible has produced a rather strange, sometimes contradictory, sometimes archaic, and sometimes violent characterization of God. A too literal approach also produces a distorted view of science. I have already addressed the topic of origins in my posts entitled, “Biblical Creation: Six 24-Hour Days,” and “A Modern Christian Sophistry.” I pointed out that extreme piety can be misguided and harmful to the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We also need to take the Bible as a whole, not as a verse here and there. Proof texting leads only to the letter of the law and not to the Spirit of the law.

The biblical concept of God makes so much more sense if we understand that God approaches mankind in a cultural context. He cannot just fly down in a chariot and rip up worldviews that have been in place for thousands of years. Nothing in history can change that fast. God has to speak our language, both the linguistic language and the language of emotion, fear, values. Sometimes he wants to send a prophet to propose a new idea or direction.

Sometimes he whispers a value and he wants us to figure out how to apply that value in the highest ethical manner. He so often sits on the sidelines while we debate and fight with one another about what he wants. Why doesn’t he just tell us in a vision or a dream? I can’t be sure, but challenging us to find the high ground in the Scripture and to apply it in a genuinely godly manner is part of the greater plan for us. It demonstrates that God created a creature that can not only understand the difference between good and evil, but can develop a sensitivity for great ethical thinking and compassion. One sign of that development is to discern what is merely religious and what is truly the heart of God.

The Bible often shouts its piety and even puts the holy words in the mouth of God. An example, in Leviticus 12:1-5 God tells Moses to tell the people that a woman who gives birth must go through a certain amount of days of separation from sacred things, including Temple worship. If she has a boy, she is unclean for 7 days. On the 8th day the boy is circumcised. Thirty-three days later she must present herself and the child to the Temple. But if she has a girl, she is unclean for two weeks, then must be purified for 66 more days. What could be more clear? The high and holy God values men over women. Furthermore, a woman’s blood, or anyone’s blood for that matter, is unclean and causes the person to be unqualified to touch anything sacred or to approach sacred space where God’s presence is concentrated. There is no other way to translate this passage. You can’t say that Moses just wrote it himself if the Bible is inerrant.

But here are the whispers. A woman with an issue of blood for 12 years pushes her way through a crowd. She bends down and touches the robe of God’s holy representative on Earth, the Redeemer of all mankind. Rather than flinching and nuking the audacious woman with a thunderbolt, Jesus praised her for her faith. Instead of slaying her right then and there, power for healing went out of him and she was made whole (Mark 5:25-34). As for the clear indication that women are less valuable than man, the whisper is found in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…” In Christ, all are equal.

Another shout from Leviticus 21:10-12, a high priest must NEVER touch or even go near a corpse, even if it is his mother or father. Yet, right after touching the woman with the blood disease, Jesus goes took the hand of a dead little girl and restored her life (Mark 5:35-42).

Shout. Leviticus 11: meticulous description of which kinds of animal food will defile a person and which will not. “Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures,” says the LORD to Moses. “Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.”

Whisper: Mark 7:14-23, “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean….For it doesn’t go into his heart, but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” So, inerrancy peeps, did God change his nature, or are there things in Leviticus that God allowed Moses to say because Moses sat in a seat of authority as an ombudsman between a primitive people and God, knowing that the cultural development of the people demanded such laws.

The ancient world was challenged to separate between what was ritually unclean and what was clean. We are challenged to separate between what is cultural and what is not.

Culture: Women should pray and prophesy with their head covered. Spirit: Philip had four daughters that prophesied.

Culture. Women must be silent in the church. Spirit: Jesus sent a woman to evangelize the town in Samaria. In the Old Testament there were prophetesses like Deborah and Hulda with great authority.

Cultural ground: A woman must submit to her husband in all things in (Ephesians 5:24). Higher ground: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

There is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law. The Lord gave us brains and common sense to discern which is which and how to use the spirit of the law to forge a more Christlike way that is less religious and more like “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And that is the greatest whisper of all, tucked away in the Law of Moses, Lev. 19:18 and Deut. 6:5. Jesus put them together in passages like Luke 10:27, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is the bottom line, the end game that crosses all eras and national boundaries. All the cultural biases, religious taboos, and must dos are nothing compared to that combined commandment. And how can you fulfill that commandment if you restrain people from fulfilling the call of God in their life or if you make them feel like trash because of their gender, skin color, or their religion or ethnic origin?

Here is a shout from me: God doesn’t give a diddlysquat about your gender, how long your hair is, what you wear (assuming it’s modest by your own cultural standards), what you eat (OK, sheep eyeballs really are detestable), or on which day you worship. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we know that the good man was in a religion that was distorted from Orthodox truth. Yet he was set forth as an exemplar for us to emulate. We know nothing about the man in the ditch except that he was bleeding and was therefore ‘unclean.’ That’s why the priest and Levite wouldn’t touch him. They were obeying the Law. The victim might have been black, white, purple, Sikh, French, gay, leprous, Jew, Egyptian, Republican, etc. He was ‘our neighbor.’ That’s all that mattered.

Christian husbands and pastors, if you love your wife as much as the Samaritan loved the man in the ditch, or as much as Christ loved the church, quit being so ‘dull,’ so obnoxiously religious. Reach for the higher ground. Listen to the whisper of God in your heart and submit one to another.