HNTRTB: Invisible moral compass

This post is the second in a very sporadic series on “How Not To Read The Bible”, my take on the attitudes we have when we come to read the Bible and how they can get us into trouble. It has also sat in my drafts folder for over a year.

The Bible, for the most part, is a storybook. We might think it’s a book of timeless truths, or doctrines, or rules for holy living, but actually, most of it is stories: stories of wanderers and kings, stories of a man called Jesus, stories of struggling young churches. Stories which make up one big story: the story, ultimately, of God. But as part of the stories, the Bible does contain one or two rules. For some strange reason, though, we often end up reading the stories as if they’re rules.

You’ve seen it many times yourself, I’m sure. Whether it’s snide commentaries on “Biblical marriage”, or the preacher who tells you that “if you take a survey of the Bible, you’ll find that it’s in favour of corporal punishment for children”, (No, I really did hear that) people just can’t seem to see the difference between what the Bible says from what the Bible approves.

And with good reason, too… it’s actually very difficult to do so.

So often we come to the Bible expecting it to make a moral judgement on our actions; but it won’t do that, because it’s a story, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should mindlessly copy what goes on in the story. We can’t, anyway, because we’re different people in different situations in a different time. But even if we could, how would we know what to copy?

The young woman trying to seek God’s will - should she copy Gideon and “lay down a fleece”? Or should she copy the part that says “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test”? Both are in the Bible.

Here’s one that comes up all the time in our work. The Japanese believer trying to understand what to do at a religious event - should he copy Daniel, and refuse to bow down? Or should he copy Nahum, and bow down without it meaning anything? Both are narrative, but which is normative? Is either?

Just the other day I read a book praising Moses for listening to Jethro and delegating; other commentaries I have here suggest that Jethro, a Gentile, brought a worldly, administrative solution to a spiritual problem. One of our leadership course students was amazed to hear of a leadership training system built around the example of Nehemiah - because the Bible never tells you whether Nehemiah was a good example of leadership or a bad one.

You’re doing it right now. You’re trying to work out why one of those is right in a particular situation and the other is wrong. You want some moral clarity here. Maybe both actions would be right. Maybe they would both be wrong. Maybe it depends. Either way, the Bible won’t help you. You need to go beyond the Bible in order to determine that, and that’s fine. That’s what you’re expected to do. But don’t look to the Bible for a moral judgement - it just tells the story of what happened, not what should have happened.

For a book of religious instruction, the Bible is maddeningly vague on doctrinal specifics.

But maybe that’s not what it’s meant to be. One of our lecturers asked us the other day whether we see the Bible as the map or the compass: does it give us a plan for how to live out our lives, or does it give us guidance as we go along? I cannot see that it gives either. It gives us stories.

Now I am being a little unfair, because the Bible does contain clear passages of moral instruction for Christians, such as that we should not eat rare steaks, that men should not have long hair, and that we should kiss each other in church, but much, much more of the legal passages in the Bible are casuistic, relational and situational rather than legalistic. In fact, Jesus got really upset with people who tried to apply legalistic principles rather than situational, relational understanding.

It’s a Jewish thing: you can’t boil down the Bible, even the Law, to a set of simple instructions for life. They never have. The Talmud relates the debates between the rabbis about how to implement the Jewish Law, and more often than not leaves the debate unresolved, with no happy black-and-white conclusion to take away. Except in one famous case:

For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed. These said halacha agrees with us, these said halacha agrees with us; a heavenly voice came forth and said to them, “both these and those are the words of the living God, but the halakhah follows the opinions of the House of Hillel.”

God declared an answer, but He also declared that both opinions reflected His truth.

Gideon or Moses? Nahum or Daniel? Both are God’s truth. Do not expect the Bible to decide between them. That’s not what it’s for. It’s the story of God’s people, and it’s not a morality play.

What should we do then?

  • We should take notice of the genre of what we’re reading - are we expecting to find good doctrine in poetry, or are we reading a letter to a particular church and expecting their situation to be the same as ours? We should think about the author, the audience and the purpose of what we read, before rushing to application.
  • We should be comfortable that both “these and those” could be the word of the living God, and that it is up to us not to abdicate our moral responsibility but to decide for ourselves.
  • We should live in the fifth act of the play, improvising in character, not reprising what has gone before.