You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the Bible…
At least if you’re reading without considering the speaker or the context, that is. Perhaps you’ve been troubled by a passage you read, or, while spreading the good news, been confronted by something bad that’s “right there in the Bible!”
The Bible teaches “an eye for an eye”. What kind of loving, forgiving God is that?
The Bible tells us that only God can forgive sins. Why do you go to a man for forgiveness?
Why should I worry about what other people are doing? After all, am I my brother’s keeper?
Before you try to answer (and remember: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is a fine answer too), consider the context. Who is speaking? What’s going on?
“An eye for an eye” comes first in Exodus 21:24. If you read the whole sentence (Ex 21:23-25), it still sounds pretty bad: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (RSV)
But don’t give up; go back even further. This sentence is part of a longer passage. Who is speaking? God, to Moses. What is going on? God is laying down “the ordinances which you shall set before them.” (Ex 21:1) He’s setting rules of conduct for the people.
If you read through the earliest actions of peoples in the Old Testament, you find that at this early time in salvation history, taking an eye for an eye was an improvement on behavior. A single crime could lead to mass slaughter, and God is restricting His children to a more limited response. This is one step in the right direction from a patient, teaching Father, not the command of a violence-loving god.
When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, the scribes and Pharisees said “who can forgive sins but God only?” (Luke 5:21) This is meant as a rebuke to Jesus, and He chastises them afterward. Hint: if you find yourself siding with the people rebuking Jesus, something is wrong. Jesus demonstrates His authority ot forgive sins and, in fact, later hands on that authority to His apostles. (John 20:23)
In the third and last example, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, the speaker is equally questionable. It is Caine who says those words, after having killed Abel. (Gen 4:9) Considering what God does next, I think we can assume the answer is “yes”. Yes, you are.
If you read – or are shown – something questionable in the Bible, keep reading! You may find the answer in the surrounding text. Look before and after. Who is speaking? Are they reliable? Do they model good behavior and faith? And why are those words being said? Is God teaching or correcting? Is Jesus using hyperbole to make a point?
Things are not always as they seem in Sacred Scripture. So, in a way, it’s true–you can’t believe everything you read.
Copyright © 2013, Joe Wetterling