The Old and New Testament readings* for this week attest to the importance of how we, as the people of God understand the word of God. Whether it is the story of the exiles in need of interpretation by the water gate or members of the Nazareth synagogue lacking context, the Bible always comes with “some assembly required”. The question, I believe, as United Methodists enter General Conference and Annual Conference season is this: who will be providing the scriptural interpretation and context? Which voices will we hear when impassioned delegates stand and begin with these words, “the Bible says…”?
1. The Cherry Pickers. The Bible is perhaps the most cherry picked text in human history. All of us, whether on the theological left or right, are guilty of taking what we want from the Bible and leaving the rest behind. However, what many reject as irrelevant today, are parts of the Bible that reflect the life, culture, and social realities of 4000-6000 years ago. I believe it is in our best interest to reject stories of child marriage, human sacrifice, and other parts of the Bible which are immoral and abhorrent by today’s standards. There’s nothing sacred about stories of human sacrifice or incest. I can read this on the news. I believe it’s ok to embrace parts of the Bible which bring out the best in humanity. It’s wrong to cherry pick from the Bible without acknowledging the parts you’re ignoring, are deeply, deeply flawed on so many levels. In other words, don’t cherry pick passages that appear to reject same-sex marriage while implicitly ignoring passages about polygamy, rape, and incest.
2. The Weapons Lobby. Ty Cobb, perhaps the greatest baseball player who ever lived said, “The baseball bat is a great weapon.” The Bible is also a great weapon. I wouldn’t listen to anyone who uses the Bible as a weapon. Used effectively, people trained in the art of Biblical weaponry can inflict lifetime spiritual wounds on men, women, and children. Here’s how you can tell someone is using their Bible as a weapon, could you substitute the word “gun” each time they refer to their Bible in conversation. Do they use violent words like “slay” when referring to the activities of their Bible? Words are not weapons. We wouldn’t accept domestic violence like this in our homes. Why would we put up with it in our churches or conferences?
3. “The King David is Prime Minister Netanyahu” Supporters. You’ll hear people who’ll say things about Israel being blessed and God blessing those who bless Israel. In the Old Testament God spends a great deal of time punishing Israel for violating a few basic ideas about worship and respecting human dignity. The blessing is talk, the punishing is real. To hear some speak, you’d believe Israel had never been punished for anything. Israel is really called to account for failing to do some very simple things in the Old Testament: care for widows, orphans, and worship God in a genuine way. If someone says Israel is sacrosanct, ask them to read their Bible and check out God’s record on this question.
4. The American Interpretation. For many of us, it is difficult for us not to read ourselves into the Bible. We like to think, “Sure, I’d be the Good Samaritan” or “I’d be the guy who got the parable”. However, when we read ourselves into the text, we read well beyond one character or a single story. Many people will read the Bible as another way to talk about the history of the United States of America. We are often called, from Matthew’s gospel, “The City on the Hill”. It boils down to this; many people believe certain passages from the Bible must be referring to us, “God-fearing, Protestant Americans who inhabit majority white denominations”. As such, the Bible is treated like a foundational document, such as the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The Bible is far greater than either of those important documents and it stands alone in human history. The Bible is not something that cannot be co-opted by one nation or nation state (America or Israel). It’s for all people. At least I think that’s what Jesus was trying to say that day in Nazareth’s synagogue.
*Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10