I want to keep circling around to Bible here. I hope you’re not sick of it yet. If so, see you tomorrow!
In early January, I mused on some of the pressing issues that would be creeping up in my little corner of the evangelical world. The thought that we still need to figure out a better way to say what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it continues to find traction. (Rachel Held Evans has made this one of her themes for the year as well.)
Yesterday one of my friends was snarking about acquiring for himself a new wife or two. Apparently, he wants to lead a raid across I-95 and take a beautiful captive home for his efforts:
When you wage war against your enemies and the LORD hands them over to you and you take prisoners, if you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you fall in love with her and take her as your wife, bringing her into your home, she must shave her head, cut her nails, remove her prisoner’s clothing, and live in your house, mourning her father and her mother for one month. After that, you may consummate the marriage. You will be her husband, and she will be your wife. Deut 21:1–13, CEB
How are we supposed to deal with passages like this?
In general, of course, we do not want to build rules out of exceptions. If we meet a strange case, this is not necessarily the starting point for thinking through how to conceive of normal.
When it comes to interpreting and applying scripture, how we think about what scripture is and what we’re supposed to do with it need to be able to handle myriad verses that we do not, and should not, “apply to our lives”–at least, not directly.
In short, we need an understanding of what scripture is, and a reading strategy, that allows us to say, first, “This was not written to us,” and then to say, with equal conviction, “This is written to us.”
The first is an acknowledgement of historical distance, cultural difference, and, most significantly when it comes to the Old Testament, an era of God’s work that applies to us only indirectly because of the advent of Christ.
“Not to us” is an important step in biblical interpretation. We need to have ears to hear how a story would have resonated with Babylonian exiles; we need ears to hear how “Jesus is Lord” might have resonated, or caused dissonance, for a first century Roman.
We need to know that when we read, “Expel the immoral brother!” that it is a word for a first century church and might not be God’s word to us about, say, the man in our meetings with a flatulence problem.
“Not to us” is a significant moment in our biblical interpretation.
But then, the Bible is the witness to God’s revelation; it is the authoritative word for the church. All scripture is inspired, and therefore somehow useful.
The question, of course, is what does “somehow” mean?
In the famous 2 Timothy passage about scripture alluded to above, Paul says that scripture is able to give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. As we find in Romans as well, there is a Christological hermeneutic that comes with affirming the OT as the word of God. The OT scriptures function as a pointer to a later coming Christ.
“To us” means “to us who are in Christ,” which means that we must read with a Christological lens, and with Christ as the coming climax to the OT narrative (or surprising disruption of that narrative, as the case may be), in order to assert its authority over us.
“Not to us”: yes, this scripture passage told the Israelites they could take wives from their captives. But we may not.
“To us”: we boldly allegorize to fit our saving story of Christ. He defeated the king of the kingdom to which we were enslaved, and took us to be His holy bride. As scripture, to us, this is not a pass to engage in stealing humans for our own, but a veiled witness to the rescue from an enslaving union to the powers of sin and death into the freeing union of grace and life (Rom 7:1-12).
“Not to us” and “to us” is a dialectic that a narrative approach to scripture enables us to develop. It is a story. And in the revelation of the story’s climax, even the earlier moments in the story are transformed.