My friend, Mike, has this saying about the Bible, “When you are trying to interpret a passage of Scripture, find the one that makes you uncomfortable and go with it.” I think that is a powerful approach. It challenges my comfort level and presses me beyond accepting an interpretation that is the one that I was looking for.
Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans blew off the roof with her post, “The Bible Was Clear.” Three people sent me a link because of the sermon I preached on Sunday, “Stop Going To Church.”
Evans’ post makes a simple point, perhaps Scripture isn’t always as clear as we like to believe it is. So, caveat emptor.
“One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand. “
It all comes down to interpretation. When we walk away from Scripture, all we have is an interpretation, an idea of what we think or believe it says. The Rabbis in Jesus’ day made interpretive choices over what to do about the divorce clause in Deut 24:1, “Suppose a man marries a woman and consummates the marriage but later finds her displeasing, because he has found her offensive in some respect. He writes her a divorce document, gives it to her and sends her away from his house [CJB].”
There were two Rabbis that owned the discussion: R. Shammai and R. Hillel.
MISHNAH (Jewish Commentary About Hebrew Scriptures)
. BETH SHAMMAI SAYs: A MAN SHOULD NOT DIVORCE HIS WIFE UNLESS HE HAS FOUND HER GUILTY OF SOME UNSEEMLY CONDUCT, AS IT SAYS, BECAUSE HE HATH FOUND SOME UNSEEMLY THING1 IN HER.2 BETH HILLEL, HOWEVER, SAY [THAT HE MAY DIVORCE HER] EVEN IF SHE HAS MERELY SPOILT HIS FOOD,3 SINCE IT SAYS,4 BECAUSE HE HATH FOUND SOME UNSEEMLY THING IN HER.
At issue was the meaning and interpretation of the Hebrew phrase arot davar (‘unpleasant thing’). Shammai was a radical who clung to the root of Torah. His interpretation swayed toward the conservative end, the offense (unpleasant thing) had to be something like adultery. Hillel, the liberal, was more inclined to put more emphasis on what was unpleasant to the man’s senses — the law with leniency. To Hillel, if the wife burned his dinner, she was outta there. By comparison, R. Akiva (after Jesus) took it further and taught that if a man desired an upgrade, a younger model, then that was that.
If the 21st century observer were to chime in, we would more than likely side with Shammai (at least in my house). We don’t want Hillel to be right. We don’t want the law with leniency, actually. Truth be told, what we want is the interpretation that aligns most closely with our opinion or emotion at the time. Interpretive choices were center stage and when approached by the Pharisees, who were having a very Jewish conversation, approached Jesus they asked him where he landed [Mt 19:1-12]. Jesus made a choice between competing interpretations. He sided with Shammai.
See, even Jesus made interpretive choices. My favorite thing about Evans’ post was not the post itself, but the comments. They totally make her point and also point out another thing: Strong opinions do not necessarily require good information. Neither do articulate responses.
“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” - Rev. Richard Furman, first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention.
We know that interpretation of the Bible has created some of the most despicable human abuses imaginable. We know what these abuses have been catastrophic. We acknowledge that interpretation was at fault.
This is where is gets tricky.
Not all interpretation is equal.
“Ignorance does not pause to ask better questions and just because someone said it, it does not make it so. “
Let’s look at that Deuteronomy passage in the King James Version:
When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
Uncleanliness? Like, she has an algea? Grease stains? This makes it appear that the man has control of the offense. I mean, how do you define “uncleanliness”? This is how Jerome, the dude that wrote the Bible in Latin, imagined it.
If we stick with this English translation, then our interpretation is going to lean in the direction of a passage that is protecting the rights of husbands. It almost makes it feel like men ought to be waiting for their wives to catch something “foul or filthy;” in which case, if you were to read the KJV and side with Shammai, you would appear to be on drugs. Hillel and Akiva appear to be on to something. They seem right, don’t they? If your wife has a radioactive growth, then I guess she gets what’s coming.
So, the Bible is clear, correct?
Yes and no.
Yes, it’s there. No…sometimes it’s not obvious.
We have all heard Rob Bell’s sermon on divorce by now, so we know that the Deuteronomy passage was revolutionary. Men could just send a woman out, ensuring that she could never be married again. However, with a certificate of divorce, at least another man we free to take his chances. If was a giant step forward for the rights of women; Biblical Sufferage.
The issue is arot davar, remember, and ‘clear’ is determined by how you interpret that Hebrew phrase. Here’s why Shammai and Jesus drew such a distinct line. The word arot was at the center of another famous marriage.
“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
In this primal biblical marriage narrative, Adam and Eve were both naked (arom; arot and arom have the same root: aroh) and they were not ashamed. Before the fall, to be arom, was to be naked and without deceit or shame. However, another naked enters into the scene.
“Now, the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, Did God say…”
In the middle of the narrative, we are introduced to a talking serpent who is more arom than any other animal; more naked than any animal. How is that possible? It doesn’t have fur, so far as we know. So, perhaps naked is a character attribute as well as a physical state. Arom is interpreted as crafty here, because nakedness in this marriage story implies two things, vulnerability and deceit.
“He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
The naked here has crossed a line. It is no longer vulnerable. It’s something else, right? It’s deceitful, shameful. This is a nakedness that inspires fear, not trust. It’s that kind of nakedness that doesn’t want to be seen by God; a nakedness like that of a wife who does not want a husband to see.
When Jesus reads arot davar in Deuteronomy 24:1, he’s not just making a random connection about divorce. It’s tied to a larger story about divorce, a divorce caused by an innocent, vulnerable woman seduced by a voice that wasn’t her husband; that wasn’t her God’s. Arot Davar, then, has it’s own narrative context. Siding with Shammai wasn’t about being conservative. For Jesus it was about connecting his interpretation to the overarching story of God in human history and letting that narrative draw him, and us, closer to the Word.
The problem with interpretation is you always have to choose it, and sometimes you have to work for it. Sometimes it takes a lot more than a quick pass through the KJV (or NRSV, NIV…take your pic). Granted, you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want it to, but that’s not what Jesus did. He interpreted Scripture the way his Father intended it, and often times it’s through Jesus that we hear the scriptures interpreted again, for the first time.