If the Bible were like the instruction manual for my car, I could start with a simple question, like “What does that light with the wavy lines mean?” I could open the manual, turn to the table of contents, look up “indicator lights,” turn to page 33 where indicator lights are explained, read the answer to my question, and happily get on with my day.
The Bible is not like the instruction manual for my car.
Really, who wants to read the car instruction manual for very long? There’s nothing interesting about it. Nothing complex, nothing deep, nothing requiring any reflection at all. The Bible, on the other hand, is highly interesting.
Unfortunately, we sometimes treat the Bible like it is a car instruction manual. We ask a question, look in the place we expect to find the answer, read a couple of verses, and go on our way assuming we know What The Bible Says. Sometimes we even use extra tricks like a concordance or a well-intended “topical index” in the back of the Bible, to reduce the amount of time spent reading Scripture. We spend as little time as possible in the Word–and we expect it to be a completely different sort of book than it actually is.
When we grapple with issues that affect a great many people’s lives, when the decisions made by Bible-believing Christians determine what counts as a family, who can keep a job, or even who can make life-saving medical decisions, the car-instruction-manual method of reading the Bible is far too superficial. If we really want to work with the Bible in our decision-making process, we must respect the complexity and depth of the Bible.
Just to scratch the surface, in this particular article, I would like to suggest that we commit to reading the whole Bible whenever we make decisions based on it. The Bible is longer than a newspaper but shorter than the Harry Potter series. A section of your newspaper is probably longer than any individual book of the Bible. It takes commitment to read through the whole thing, but it is far from impossible. Christians believe the Bible is God’s revealed word to us. If we seek to stand on the solid ground of this revelation, shouldn’t we know what we are talking about?
Let me offer an example. In 2008 I was asked to be an expert witness for the trial of Rev. Janet Edwards. She was charged with officiating at the wedding of two women. The charges included statements that such a marriage was against Scripture and against the Directory for Worship. I was asked to be a witness for this trial because I have been studying Christian theology since 2001 with an emphasis on gender and sexuality, and because I had access to most years of the minutes of the General Assembly, which provided some background on judicial cases involving sex and marriage and the Directory of Worship. I had taught a seminary course in liturgy and a workshop for seminarians preparing for ordination exams. I expected that all my research would come into play in the trial.
The first thing I did when preparing for the trial was what I thought any reasonable Christian would do: I read through the whole Bible keeping an eye out for anything related to marriage, and kept a list of the results. My marriage-oriented read through the Bible was really preliminary to my scholarly preparation. As it turned out, the Bible was pretty much all they asked me about. It was extremely odd to be in the box as a duly labeled expert, merely reporting on the contents of a book which the people in the room had presumably read already, and probably had copies of in their own bags. The whole experience opened my eyes to the fact that reading through the whole Bible may be a forgotten skill for many of us.
Here are just a very few of the interesting things I, or anyone, can find about marriage and family in Scripture:
- Gen 2.20-25 God wanted the man to have a helper, so God created woman; therefore a man leaves his parents and is joined to a woman.
- Gen 3.16 Wife desires husband and is ruled by husband, as punishment for eating forbidden fruit.
- Gen 20.12 Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister on his father’s side
- Gen 38 Tamar impersonates a prostitute in order to bear children by her father-in-law Judah, since he broke his promise to have her marry his son Shelah after the death of Tamar’s husband, Shelah’s brother. Tamar is called righteous after this
- Gen 38.8 Brothers have the duty of fathering a child on behalf of married older brothers who die childless, with the older brother’s wife
- Ex 21.7-11 A master must treat a female slave with same respect as a wife (or daughter, if she’s for his son)
- Lev 18.19 No uncovering nakedness during menstruation
- Lev 20.21 A man will be childless if he takes his brother’s wife
- Deut 22.28-29 Man lying with a non-betrothed virgin (under any conditions including rape) must marry her.
- 2 Sam 5.13-16 David collects more concubines and wives from Jerusalem and has 11 more children, including Solomon
- 2 Sam 9.1-13 David gives land to Jonathan’s disabled son Mephibosheth and invites him to table just like one of king’s sons (by birth or marriage)
- 1 Chron 23.21-23 Eleazar died leaving daughters and no sons, so his brother’s sons marry them
- Song of Songs: Throughout, no clear statement of the number or gender of characters, or who’s speaking when. Also little to help us find out who here is married or getting married. There is a celebration of what could be Solomon’s wedding procession, 3.6-11. But is Solomon the same one who has to sneak around and peer through lattices in ch. 2, or who pastures a flock, 6.3? If it’s supposed to be chronological and if this is a wedding, the wedding happens after a lot of the love affair, and more sneaking around happens after the wedding.
- Mt 5.32 Whoever divorces (or separates himself from, apoluwn) his wife, unless it’s said she was immoral (porneias), makes her commit adultery (poiei auten moicheuthenai). Whoever marries a divorced/separated woman commits adultery.
- Mt 19.10-12 Disciples say after divorce teaching: Then it’s better not to marry. Jesus: Not all can accept this statement, and there are eunuchs for many different reasons.
- Lk 14.26 Jesus: Whoever does not hate his own family, including wife, cannot be my disciple
- Acts 16.14-15 Lydia has authority to have her whole household baptized
- 1 Cor 11.5 Women should speak in church with their heads covered
- 1 Cor 14.34-35 Women should keep silent in church and ask their husbands any questions at home.
- 2 Tim 1.5 Timothy’s pedigree is through grandmother Lois and mother Eunice
Again, that’s just a few. I’m not going to do much interpretation in this article, but let me just present a half-dozen statements purely drawn from a surface-level collection of what Scripture says about marriage.
- There is nothing in Scripture about heterosexual marriages in which a man and a woman decide to get married because they love each other.
- There is very little about monogamy. Some monogamous couples exist in Scripture, but there is only one verse explicitly prohibiting men from taking more than one wife, and that is only directed at deacons (1 Tim 3.12).There is also nothing about same-sex marriage.
- It is impossible to obey everything the Bible says about marriage at the same time, for example Deut 25.5-10 and Lev 20.21, or 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Cor 11.5.
- Certain things the Bible says about marriage are abhorrent to almost all modern-day Christians, for example, the requirement that a rape victim marry her rapist, Deut 22.28-29.
- Genesis presents us with Adam and Eve, and with Judah and Tamar.
Since this is really the situation we have in Scripture, anything we decide about marriage, if we claim it is based on Scripture, ought to take all of Scripture into account. Also, if we are going to use different passages in different ways, we must be clear about why. Let’s take the stories of Adam and Eve (Gen 2-3) and Judah and Tamar (Gen 38). Many people would say that Adam and Eve are a model for marriage, and Judah and Tamar aren’t. Do we know why?
I don’t bring this up to make some kind of appeal that women start impersonating prostitutes in order to have sex with their fathers-in-law. I merely ask you, reader, to consider your own answer to the question. What makes Adam and Eve better than Judah and Tamar? Is it something in the text itself? According to the literal text, God blesses the relationship of Adam and Eve. According to the literal text, Tamar is a righteous woman for what she did with Judah. So far the score is roughly tied. Are Adam and Eve better because they came first? If so, how do we know it is a model for everyone’s marriage, not just the first one? Are Adam and Eve better because we already know that prostitution is wrong? If so, we are either importing an external belief into Scripture, or we are using other parts of Scripture that are against prostitution, at the possible risk of ignoring parts of Scripture that say prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before anyone else. Are Adam and Eve better because we have heard their story more often? Are Adam and Eve better because my pastor says they are? Are these really reasons we can present to the whole church?
Over the nearly 2000 years since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, plus the roughly 1000 years of the formation of the Hebrew Bible before then, we have had many ways of moving from Scripture to decision-making about rules and actions. The way in which we make that move is not as obvious as some people claim it is.
At the very least, we must all acknowledge that it is foolish to claim we can just look at one or a few verses of Scripture, copy what they say into present-day law, and demand obedience to that law. At least, it is foolish if we ever want to be able to say with any degree of honesty that our decisions are based on Scripture. Let us indeed base our decisions on Scripture; and let us read the whole thing, prayerfully, and with an open and curious heart.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture (PCUS, 1982) available at http://oga.pcusa.org/publications/scripture-use.pdf
Dirt, Greed and Sex by William Countryman Brief of the Rev. Janet Edwards, Ph. D. Part of the documents for Rev. Edwards’ trial before Pittsburgh Presbytery. Available upon request from heather.reichgott [at] gmail.com