The Bible doesn’t supply and doesn’t pretend that it supplies every answer to every moral question we can raise. But it reveals God and comes to its greatest height when it reveals God in and as Jesus Christ. It does this in numerous rich ways and having done it the Bible urges us to work on that basis in answer to the question, “How then shall we live?” It provides the groundwork by which we can learn to “think theologically”.
Leviticus 19 tells Israel to leave the edges of their fields for the poor but doesn’t define an “edge”. Nor does it define “the poor” How are they to obey the call if they don’t know what an “edge” is or who “the poor” are? God concludes numerous verses with the motivational phrase, “I am the Lord your God!” But that’s more than motivation. It teaches them how to think of an “edge” or how to think of “the poor.” Not with a measuring line or a dictionary. They will know what an “edge” or “the poor” means when they know who their Lord is and wish to please Him; when they wish to act like Him. He’s the one that “brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Bearing that in mind, when they come to harvesting they’ll not quibble and get as near to the edge of their property as possible and they won’t debate the identity of “the poor” every generation. The issue isn’t settled by lexicons and logic, it’s by one’s experience with God and how that shapes his or her response to the neighbor.
It’s clear that the Bible tolerates things and we are seduced into thinking that that means those things are approved. To think this might not be sheer hardness of heart but it’s certainly ignorance. Pharisees saw “divorce for any cause” as approved by God and Jesus showed it was only tolerated and regulated. He makes it clear in Matthew 19 that they judged it approved because they were hard-hearted and often heartless.
The notion that polygamy was approved in the OT is false—it was tolerated and it was regulated. And slavery is tolerated in both the OT and NT but it’s never approved. (More needs to be said about “slavery” and what the word means in numerous OT texts because it is only a shallow reading of the OT that equates all OT “slavery” with what it has come to mean to us.) Concubinage is tolerated in the OT but never approved.
But since we in the West are not troubled with polygamy and concubinage we can shrug at all that. Now “slavery”—that’s another matter. It wasn’t very long ago that Western nations were using the OT to approve of slavery. (Let me repeat: in the OT, all “slavery” is not slavery.) Not long ago I heard a Bible teacher whose views I judge, borrowing a phrase, are like the older photographs we used to have—they are “underdeveloped and over-exposed”—I heard him tell a crowd that “Paul was wrong about slavery.” Poor soul, he thought Paul approved of it and then said Paul couldn’t conceive of a world without slavery. Someone who could conceive of a creation transformed (Romans 8:18-23) couldn’t think of a world without slavery? (That’s what this professor said and he went on to say worse.)
I want to make it clear that it simply isn’t enough to quote verses in support of our claims and conclude we have a right to practice the same or something similar.
The Pharisees as a group could quote Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and look back on many centuries of history and practice to support their divorcing their wives for what so often were trivial reasons. Jesus condemned their hearts and their behavior as “adulterous”. In essence He told them that that text wouldn’t have been in the Bible if they hadn’t been heartless fools.
They said, “See? We have lined our lives up with Deuteronomy 24:1-4,” and were proud of it; they had some verses to support them. He said, “If you hadn’t been doing wrong that text would never have been needed.” I once had a 20th century Western man argue with me his right to have more than one wife because the OT regulated (rather than outlawed) polygamy. It must have been okay because it was “regulated,” he insisted.
The same thing is done to defend and support “our friend” the booze industry. Because people in the Bible daily drank intoxicating wine and because God is said to give “wine” as a gift to humans it’s immediately assumed that that means He would be pleased with our supporting the booze industry. (I won’t enter the discussion here about the generic nature of the biblical words rendered “wine” and “strong drink” or “beer”. Another time perhaps, though it’s hardly worth the time—so I now judge, though I didn’t always take that view.) But the very idea that naturally fermented wine or beer or “strong drink” (as the Hebrew term is translated in English and you know what “strong drink” means to us) is anything like the wines and beers or spirits the modern booze industry sells—that’s nonsense! And I would suppose if you can drink it, you can share it, if you can share it you can make it and if you can make it you can sell it.
It doesn’t matter to me that tens of thousands of people can support the booze industry and not get overwhelmed. Good for them! If they were all that mattered I suppose the matter wouldn’t ever be worth discussing. But hundreds of millions of people—drinkers and those they affect—are put through torment by what the booze industry sells. There isn’t another “respectable” business under heaven that does the damage to a countless host of our struggling fellow-humans that comes anywhere near the ruin the booze industry generates.
We boycott all kinds of companies (from fur companies to soap to sauce) if we think they’re hurting animals or poor people in “sweat shops” and then we do what? We support and defend the worst plague on earth. And all because they drank intoxicating wine in the Bible and because Jesus made gallons and gallons of it (so we’re told though oinos doesn’t mean intoxicating wine). Well, there’s more to it than that, isn’t there! We prize our “freedom”.
One of these days if we’re “lucky” we’ll come to see that the booze industry is against all we’re for and for all we’re against!
To interpret the Bible in the spirit of the Story as a whole requires more than lexicons, grammars and other exegetical tools. I understand for personal reasons that we don’t always live up to what we know—my life has been littered with failures—and that’s tragic. But our failure to live up to the best we know mustn’t be used to lower the loving response to God that we see and hear in scripture.
God’s heart, His purpose and His love for the human family seen climactically in the Lord Jesus is the best hermeneutical tool available to us (see Ephesians 5:1-2; Romans 15:1-3 and chapter 14 as context). Each Christian will have to work this out within his/her own heart. But surely: “I have the right…” (real or imagined) is not to be and will not be the last word about a host of things to those who live before us reflecting the heart and mind of God better than the rest of us.