By: C. L. Crouch
Why does the Bible matter? Why do we continue to talk about, turn to, and study a diverse assortment of narratives, poems, laws and prophetic proclamations at least two millennia old? The most straightforward answer is that they continue to serve as the sacred texts for two of the world’s major religions, Judaism and Christianity, and as an interlocutor for a third, Islam. As such, they have served as the theological, ethical and social bedrock of half of civilization.
But if this goes some way to explaining their persistence through past ages, it leaves open why these texts might continue to matter in the present and future. Why might these texts remain of interest, particularly in the undeniably diverse cultural milieu which is the modern world? One compelling reason is their own diversity, which contributes in a marked way to their ongoing vitality. The texts and traditions of the Hebrew Bible contain profound differences in their theologies, deep disputes in ethical thought and argumentation, and fundamental disagreements in conceptions of the world and its workings.
The notion that ‘The Bible says’ any single thing on any particular subject is rapidly disabused after a few pages. For example: the Bible, as everyone knows, does not like sex. For those who are married it may be tolerable, but even then it is a bit embarrassing or shameful; otherwise, it is completely forbidden.
If we restrict ourselves to the laws of the Torah/Pentateuch, it might seem like this stereotype is correct: the laws in Deut. 22:22-29 imply, for example, that for a woman to have sex before marriage voluntarily was punishable by death (although the laws do, albeit crudely, attempt to identify and exempt victims of rape). Similarly, a law in which a young woman is stoned to death outside her father’s house because she had been misrepresented as a virgin to her betrothed suggests it was a capital crime for a woman to have any sexual experience before her (first) marriage (Deut. 22:13-21).
The concern in these laws for the reputation of the young woman, as a proxy for the reputation of her father or husband, at first appears utterly alien, even abhorrent, to many twenty-first century readers. Yet, a similar logic persists today, in traditions such as the father giving away the bride at a wedding, the often unspoken double standard of sexual behaviour for young men and young women, and in the public shaming of young women whose behaviour is perceived as too sexual.
Immediately, then, we can see how biblical laws might provide a useful set of tools for thinking about ethics and morality. This is true of the ancient context, of course, but by drawing attention to continuities—sometimes uncomfortable ones—between ancient and modern practice, these texts can also help their contemporary readers recognise and reflect on the assumptions and issues underlying contemporary ethical thought.
The provocative capacity of the biblical texts, however, hardly stops there. In fact, it does not take long to realise that the biblical authors themselves recognised the complex issues involved in living an ethical life. To stay with our theme, the book of Ruth tells of a young foreign woman who challenges the expectations of female sexual passivity by actively pursuing a relationship with the older Boaz, supported or even instigated by her mother-in-law Naomi. Bathsheba’s refusal of David’s summons may have been politically and socially difficult (if not impossible), but she is never said to have cried out (2 Samuel 11). Although a strict application of the Deuteronomy legislation would prescribe not only David’s death but also Bathsheba’s, the narrator makes no move to condemn her. Likewise, although David is punished, he does not die.
In Genesis 38, Tamar solicits her father-in-law, Judah, in order to get herself with child, directly contravening the expectation that she wait for Judah to allocate her to his next surviving son (which he had as yet failed to do). In each of these stories, the reality of human sexuality is complicated and messy. Whether the concern is to prod an older man towards sexual and marital union, the difficulty of sexual refusal in the face of power, or the use of sex by those without power to achieve their necessary ends, the biblical narratives recognise the complexity of attempts to discern moral behavior.
Another well-known example of biblical complexity concerns creation. Genesis 1 narrates seven days of orderly creative activity by a divine authority. Genesis 2-3 offers an intimate story of an anthropomorphic God who wanders in a garden with Adam and Eve. Beyond Genesis, creation is recalled as a story of God’s powerful victory over forces of chaos (e.g., Psalms 18 and 89). These various stories reflect very different ideas of how and why the world works the way it does. Why such different accounts?
Despite the determined efforts of several generations of interpreters, they are not literally compatible: the divine conflict against chaos in the Psalms is implicitly rejected by the portrayal of absolute divine power in Genesis 1, while the order and nature of the creation of male and female in Genesis 1 are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the account in Genesis 2-3. The differences are apparent, so why does the canon preserve them all, rather than choosing one and eliminating the rest?
Perhaps the compilers of these books, and the later arbiters of the canon, recognised the richness of variety. Genesis 1 uses the language of God making humanity in his own image (Gen. 1:26-27) to present humankind as something that is nearly – if not quite – divine, elevating humankind towards God. Genesis 2-3, on the other hand, emphasises God’s willingness to come down to humanity, keeping the humans company in the garden. In their logical incoherence, these texts offer more theological and anthropological insight than either could manage individually.
Perhaps the authors and editors also recognised that too much consensus is rarely a good thing. There is a rather good line in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, about believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. It reminds us that there is a certain potential and power to logical impossibilities, something perfectly exquisite about the apparent impossibilities posed by a multiplicity of traditions.
These texts represent a cacophony of ancient opinions on what it means to be human, on what it means to be a human being in relation with the divine, and on the appropriate manifestations of these in ordinary (and extraordinary) human lives. The fact that the canonical collections of scripture preserve such diversity of opinion is particularly provocative; amongst other things, it suggests that the forces behind these texts were less interested in dictating absolute moral or theological principles than the process of how we might discern such principles, in the midst of all the messiness of ordinary life.
It also suggests they recognized the contingent nature of their own conclusions, preserving them not as the final word but a witness of and an invitation to the ongoing dialogue in which they are engaged. In their diversity, these texts invite their readers into a conversation about the most profound human questions, reminding us of the existence – even necessity – of multiple perspectives. They resist our temptation to provide simple answers to complex questions; they force us towards a recollection of and encounter with the vivid complexity of lived experience. That is why they matter.
A version of this article first appeared as ‘The Hebrew Bible’, in Why Does the Bible Matter? (ed. C.L Crouch, R. Deines and M. Wreford; London: The Bible Society, 2016), 8-13.
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