There are a number of things in the Bible that should trouble any reader. We find in its pages things like genocide, gang rape, and slavery — not only sanctioned, but at times commanded by God. For example, we read in the law of Moses the divine command for God’s people to “show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2) and to “kill everything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16).
That’s not the whole story. Alongside these troubling texts, we also find many passages in the Bible affirming a message of compassion and care for the poor and the stranger. In short, we find both wonderful things and horrible things in the Bible.
The fact is, the Bible is multi-vocal. It does not contain one single position, but a multitude of conflicting visions of what justice and goodness mean. In some places, we find hatred and killing presented as God’s will. In other places, we find a counter-argument proclaiming grace, mercy, and love as God’s way.
Each side is presented as being the “correct” position–presented as speaking for God–but with opposite and contradictory views of what God’s will is. The Bible is a record of dispute, a catalog of opposing arguments. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this “witness and counter-witness, ” evoking the image of two opposing sides in a courtroom, each making their case.
This might lead us to ask,
“Why would God allow for immoral things like genocide or slavery to be portrayed in the Bible as God’s will if they are not? Why are these books part of our canon?”
We might wish the Bible were a book to tell us the right answer to moral questions so we could open it up and find out what God’s will is. But as reasonable and noble as that desire may be, the Bible is simply not that kind of book.
Instead, the Old Testament in particular is a record of dispute containing conflicting visions of what God’s will looks like. In my book Disarming Scripture, I identify these two opposing ways as the way of unquestioning obedience and the way of faithful questioning. What is remarkable about the Hebrew canon is that it contains both, allowing the voice of faithful questioning to speak out in protest against the dominant voice of unquestioning obedience.
This record of dispute pulls us into the argument where we must engage with the text morally. The picture here is that of Israel whose name literally means “wrestles with God, ” and there is a long history of Jewish interpretation that is characterized by a healthy and faithful questioning.
One example of this way of faithful questioning can be found in the New Testament Gospels which record an intra-religious dispute between two opposing ways of reading Scripture. On the one hand we have Jesus who follows in the prophetic tradition of faithful questioning, and on the other hand we have the Pharisees who represent the way of unquestioning obedience.
It’s important to stress that this is not a conflict between Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, and as noted earlier, there has been a long history of Jewish interpretation characterized as faithful questioning — both before and after Jesus. At the same time there have also been plenty of Christians who, despite the example of Jesus, read the Bible like the Pharisees in the Gospels, thereby following in the tradition of unquestioning obedience.
The fact is, both in Judaism and Christianity, the way of faithful questioning has always been a minority voice, a voice of protest from the margins. This voice can be heard in the Hebrew prophets, and it can be heard in Jesus, but the majority voice of unquestioning obedience can certainly also be found in the multi-vocal Bible as well. This is the voice that says with hellfire and brimstone “obey without question or face God’s wrath!” It is the voice of religious violence, thundering down with absolute certainty.
Returning to the above question of why the Bible contains immoral things like slavery and genocide, I want to suggest that the question actually inadvertently assumes the way of unquestioning obedience, and that the key to answering it is to instead adopt the way of faithful questioning. That is, it assumes that the Bible ought to tell us the right answer, and that if something is wrong it should be removed from the canon. That way we can just read unquestioningly and know that our sacred text will give us the right answer. If it says slavery is God’s will, then it must be. If it is not God’s will, then it should not say it.
But if we instead recognize that the Bible — and in particular the Old Testament — is indeed multi-vocal, containing both messages of compassion and hate, both things we can embrace and things we must reject — then we can engage in the dispute as moral agents. Just as the news contains pundits on both sides of any issue, each claiming to be right, the multi-vocal Old Testament likewise contains many conflicting views of what is good and right.
Here it is important to stress that we do not find the “right side” and the “wrong side” presented side-by-side in the Old Testament in the way a multiple-choice question purposely lists wrong answers along-side of the right one. Rather, each side believed that their position was right. Those who called for people to commit genocide in God’s name in the Old Testament believed it was good and right, just as many Christians today believe that it is right for our government to use torture. Other Christians believe that it is deeply immoral to torture. This might prompt us to ask a second question,
“If Jesus is the key to identifying what moral vision to embrace in the Old Testament, why not simply read the New Testament and discard the Old?”
Again this seems at first blush like a reasonable and compelling approach. The problem is when this is done from the perspective of unquestioning obedience, history demonstrates that it has led Christians to endorse the institution of slavery based on an unquestioning reading of the New Testament. Likewise, an unquestioning reading of the words of Jesus has led some Christians to perpetuate cycles of domestic abuse, in a tragic attempt to be faithful to the way of self-sacrificing love. The answer therefore is not to find a perfect text that we can read unquestioningly, but to learn how to faithfully question ourselves, our culture, our religion, and our sacred texts.
This is what Jesus models for us, and as his disciples it is simply not enough to thoughtlessly copy his answers, like a poor student copying answers to a test without understanding them. We need to understand what motivated Jesus to ask the questions he did; we need to learn how to think morally, critically, and creatively as Jesus did.
The simple fact is, obedience absent of reflection or understanding inevitably leads to abuse. We therefore cannot unquestioningly follow the New Testament or even Jesus. Instead, we need to learn to adopt Jesus’ method of faithful questioning motivated by love and compassion.
As moral agents, we must not unquestioningly accept whatever the Bible says (including the New Testament). Nor should we accept without question whatever our culture says is right (whether from the left or the right). Rather, we must learn how to step into the dispute — both within the pages of the Bible, and in the public square — and make our case for what is good. This is exactly what we find Jesus doing in his time. For those of us who call ourselves his followers, we need to learn how to do the same in ours.