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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Misusing Scripture

Noah's curse on his son Ham -- and specifically on his grandson Canaan -- has been much abused over the years. The Israelites without doubt saw this curse as a part of God's mandate that they should take over the land of Canaan and destroy or rule over the Canaanites. (They also had the specific command of God telling them to take possession of the land and God offered some other reasons for this conquest.) But this curse was also used during America's history to justify whites ruling over slaves kidnapped from Africa. When Noah says that Ham's descendants should be slaves to his brothers, it seems to justify enslaving Africans (the "Hamitic" or descended-from-Ham peoples) to the middle eastern peoples (Shem's descendants) and the European peoples (Japheth's descendants). So when white Americans of European descent wanted to justify an economic system that kept them in power, they used this text to legitimize slavery.

Now, the Bible recognizes slavery as "the way things are" in the ancient world. Our political sensibilities see slavery as one of the Ultimate Evils, and we rightly reject any sense that one race is inferior to another. I'm not at all saying that the Bible justifies bigotry or racism.

What I am saying is that we who read the Bible seriously and want to live by its guidance have to be very, very careful. The main danger is that we are all too prone to justify our actions and our systems, and we can easily read the Bible in a way that makes our preconceptions and preferences seem like the Ultimate Good.

We have to, HAVE TO learn to read the Bible for what it really says. It's way to easy to make the Bible say what I want it to say. It's hard but necessary to let the text read us, rather than us picking and choosing our way through the text. So when I run into something in the Bible that makes me uncomfortable, rather than simply dismissing it or ascribing it to primitive cultures and their ignorance, I need to investigate. Dig into what the Bible says in other places about this topic. Wrestle with it. See how it relates to other places in the Bible. Then -- and here's the hard part -- when the Bible contradicts my assumptions of the way things are, I need to ask myself -- am I willing to submit to this word? Am I willing to let God's Word shape and form my perceptions?

God's Word is eternal and inspired. My interpretations of it are fallible and culture-bound.

Take a step farther. Can we also see that the Bible reads our culture? What the Bible has to say might not only contradict my point of view, but it might also contradict and confront our shared perceptions of how things are. For example: The Ten Commandments includes a commandment, or two, depending on which version and how you number them, that prohibit coveting. You shall not covet your neighbor's house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's. But every day in my mailbox I receive vivid flyers advertising everything from lawn services to law offices, from new cars to new hairstyles. All this advertising has one specific goal. It is all designed to make me covet. Listen to the financial reports and you rapidly get the idea that our economy is built on covetousness. If I'm not coveting enough that I spend rather than save, our economy will not recover as fast.

What does the Bible have to say to a society whose cornerstone is covetousness? What might the Bible say to us collectively about our view of "stuff"?

This is just one example. Dig deeper and you'll find dozens of other areas where the Bible confronts our shared assumptions about reality and how the world works.

Part of the problem with those slaveowners and their supporters in the mid-1800's in America was that they jumped from "this is how reality works" to "the Bible supports my view of reality" without seeing what the Bible said at a deeper level about their economic and social institutions. It's easy for us to condemn them, but are we willing to do differently?

Are we willing to let the Bible read us?

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