Is the Bible a Reliable Moral Guide?

What, then, are those who read the Bible to do? Shall we just pick and choose the laws and commandments that appeal to us and disregard the others? Curiously, I'm tempted to answer a qualified "yes."
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I know, I know: given that I teach, preach and write about the Bible for a living, I'm hardly the kind of person you think would ask this kind of question. But maybe it's precisely because I spend so much time with the Bible that this question occurs to me. After all, the Bible says some pretty awful stuff, and if you're going to take any of it seriously, it seems like you need to be willing to read all of it carefully.

So here's the background to my question: I've very much appreciated and learned from the series of posts by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky on what the Bible says about abortion, women and homosexuality. Their scholarly acumen and insight has helped me, and I suspect many others, to understand the context of various biblical passages better and thereby hear the biblical witness on these issues in a more nuanced and faithful way. I was struck, however, by a sentence in their opening post: "The Bible's value, above all, is as a guide to lives. And we mean to all of our lives, whether one is religious or not, whether one is Christian, Jewish, or from another religion or no religion."

My reaction to what I'm sure they believed was a relatively innocuous sentence was as unexpected as it was unbidden: Really?! Is the primary value of the Bible really as a moral guide? My mind went immediately to the many and various offenses listed in the Bible that call for the death penalty: murder and kidnapping, which perhaps shouldn't surprise, but also adultery, homosexual practice, cursing a parent, owning an animal that repeatedly attacks others, and being a "medium or wizard" -- and all this from only two chapters (Exodus 21 and Leviticus 20). And these, of course, are just capital offenses; there are numerous others that call for losing various body parts or being expelled from the community.

To be sure, there are also many important and salutary laws that we might well heed today, including caring for the most vulnerable, loving one's neighbor, releasing the debt of those overwhelmed by their obligations, always making provision for those who are poor, not taking vengeance on others, planting and harvesting in a manner that today we would call "sustainable," and not lending money in a way that disadvantages the borrower -- and all of those also from a small set of chapters. (Ex. 22-23, Lev. 19, 25). Think how different our debates about health care, relief for those facing foreclosure, agricultural policy and the regulation of banks would be if we consulted these passages.

Notice, though, that the chapters from which the "good" laws come are disturbingly close to those containing the "bad" ones. And that's just the problem: the Bible seems regularly and simultaneously to offer counsel that we deem both awful and excellent. In what way, then, can it serve as a reliable moral guide? One approach to this question -- the one followed by a majority of progressive Jewish and Christian scholars -- is to place these passages in their original context, explaining their "foreignness" so that we can either 1) understand their highly contextual nature and thereby recognize that they do not apply today or 2) re-appropriate and apply their more salutary content to our context. This approach, as Friedman and Dolansky capably demonstrate, can be tremendously productive. But at times it falls painfully short, for while it may be true that the verses calling homosexuality an abomination, for instance, should be considered temporary and contextual, one needs to question whether this law (and many others) was just at any time or under any circumstances.

What, then, are those who read the Bible to do? Shall we just pick and choose the laws and commandments that appeal to us and disregard the others? Curiously, I'm tempted to answer a qualified "yes." I do so largely because I suspect the Bible was never intended to serve primarily as a moral reference. Rather, I think that the Bible comes to us as a collection of confessions of faith of the ancient Israelites and Christians about the nature and character of God and was intended to invite readers into relationship with that God. From that relationship flows a commitment to leading a certain kind of life. Theology, that is, precedes morality, as one's view of God -- angry or loving, judgmental or gracious -- greatly influences how one relates to neighbor and world.

Even a cursory read of the Bible, however, reveals that these confessions, written over more than a thousand years, also display tremendous variety in their portrayals of God. Therefore, readers must exercise both discernment and discretion regarding which testimonies seem most helpful and trustworthy, as these critical decisions decisively shape the way one navigates and negotiates the moral instruction of the Bible. Ultimately, the passages that have been most helpful in describing the character of God fashion the critical lens through which readers make sense of and interpret the various and sundry moral commands contained throughout Scripture.

While this may sound complicated to some and dubious or even unfaithful to others, I'd contend that it has been the dominant approach to interpreting the Bible since, well, biblical times. Time and again the prophets choose one passage by which to interpret others. Amos, for instance, declares that the Lord despises all of Israel's solemn assemblies and religious sacrifices -- regarding which there are numerous laws and regulations -- because of its neglect for the poor (Amos 5:21-24). Simply put, Amos believes the passages about caring for the poor are just plain more important than those about proper worship and sacrifice. Similarly, Jesus not only states that there are two commandments -- loving God and loving neighbor -- on which all the other laws depend (Mt. 22:34-40), but also puts that interpretive prioritization into practice when he re-interprets a passage on divorce (Dt. 24:1-4) in light of another about creation (Gen. 2:24) (see Mt. 19:3-12).

Jewish and Christian clerics and interpreters have followed suit ever since. The 16th century Reformers, for instance, argued for employing a "canon within a canon," believing that the passages of the Bible that speak most clearly of God's grace and mercy provide an interpretive key to other passages. More recently, scholars have advocated using Sachkritik - German for "content criticism" -- by which one makes interpretive decisions based on the primary witness of a particular book or, indeed, the entire Bible.

Further, I'd argue that when faced with a compilation as diverse and complex as the Bible, all interpreters -- whether professional scholars, Sunday preachers, or everyday readers, and from the most conservative viewpoint to the most liberal -- are guided by what they believe to be the central and most important passages of their sacred texts. We all, that is, pick and choose to a certain extent from the variety of moral instruction in the Bible in relation to what we think is at the heart of the biblical witness. The only way to be accountable in this kind of practice is to admit that we are engaging in it in the first place in order that we can make a case for choosing one passage as primary over another and be willing to enter into conversation about, and perhaps reconsider, those choices.

How does this kind interpretive operation work? To return to our earlier example of homosexuality, one might argue that given both the relatively few verses the Bible devotes to the matter as well as the multiple and diverse understandings of sexuality present in the Bible, one might be best served by not expecting these select passages to resolve our questions. Rather, one might instead turn to other passages about communal responsibility, mutual and loving commitment, and the intricate nature of our human relationships to discern a moral framework within which to discuss these issues. Complicated work at times, even difficult? Sure, but who ever said addressing the complex ethical issues of our age should be easy?

So back to our original question: Is the Bible a reliable moral guide? If with this question we are asking whether we can look to the Bible as a kind of divine or ancient reference book, finding direct answers to today's moral questions, I'll offer a definitive "no." But if we instead wonder whether reading the Bible can lead to useful reflection on the moral life and aid one in making ethical decisions, then I'll advance a "yes" that is simultaneously bold and cautious. Bold because I believe that the Bible can be a profound guide to life, but cautious in that I want to acknowledge that that guidance often comes to us "sideways." That is, the Bible is most interested in inviting us to understand the meaning of this mysterious life we share by inviting us into relationship with God, a relationship that in turn offers counsel regarding the variety of moral choices before us. So mystery and meaning, I would argue, come before morality on the pages of Scripture.

In light of this, it may seem to many that reading the Bible for moral guidance often appears a dicey venture at best. But I nevertheless believe that those willing -- whether particularly religious or not -- to stay with this most peculiar and complicated of books and wrestle with the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly things we find on its pages will be surprised by the relevance of the Bible not only to our moral concerns, but to all the dimensions of our complex and mysterious lives.

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