I was on a morning walk recently with some friends in the mountains, and met someone on the walk who was visiting one of our neighbors. We had a delightful conversation about the different things we’d done with our lives. I told him that prior to living in Seattle I ran an outdoor program that was a blend of “Outward Bound” and “Bible Teaching”. (For those interested in such a program today, the best one I know of is in Austria, and you can learn of it here). Then, right there, with the sun beating down on the two of us he said, “which God did you teach them about, the Old Testament one, or the New Testament one?” He went on to say he had little interest in the Old Testament God, “all angry, and jealous, all genocidal, and imposing those bizarre rules on people”. He seemed to view the New Testament God more favorably, indicating in essence that Jesus was someone with whom he’d like to have a beer. These two gods, in his mind, couldn’t possibly be the same being.
This isn’t a question I hear often at church, but it’s a question lots of people (Christians and not) covertly think about. We don’t like to ask it in church because we already know the right answer, which is that there’s only one God and that God never changes. We know this because the Bible tells us this. We want to believe it, because we want to believe the Bible. Sure, there are nagging tensions inherent in this glib declaration. We wonder, if God never changes, if he still wants kids to be killed by stoning them to death if they rebel against their parents. We wonder if it’s still true that if a man’s wife sees her husband getting beat up and tries to help by grabbing his adversary’s, I’ll call them ‘stones’, she should get her hand cut off as a reward. We wonder if a woman, during her time of ‘discharge’ is still unclean, and to be shunned. We wonder if God would still advocate walking into someone’s land and taking it by force, killing every man, woman, and child in the process. We wonder if we can eat bacon.
This is why I always get a little annoyed when people say to me, “I’m just tellin’ ya what the Bible says” as if it’s the same thing as a rule book for a baseball umpire. That kind of approach to the Bible is not only damaging to people, it’s both spiritually and intellectually immature and dishonest. The Bible says don’t eat unclean meat, until here, where the Bible explicitly tells Peter to eat the same animals that were previously unclean because now they’re clean. Then, when Gentiles wanted to become Christ followers, the religious leaders said they could, as long as they refused to eat any meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Later, Paul will say, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols.
What’s going on here?
The answer is, first of all, that the Bible is a true story, but it’s a story – of humanity’s problem, and God’s solution to that problem. It’s revealed to us through all manner of literature: historical narrative, poetry, parable, ‘sayings’, prophecies, well reasoned letters, prophecies, dreams, and visions. It’s written over the span of thousands of years by numerous authors, in various cultural settings and languages. Because of this, there’s a giant negative, and a giant positive that will help us understand it better:
Don’t cherry pick Bible verses to make your point. – People have used the Bible to justify and prohibit all manner of things. It’s not hard, if all I need is a verse, to build a case for having more than one wife, or for genocide and land theft, or for killing disobedient children, or for justifying divorce or outlawing divorce, justifying violence or becoming a pacifist, owning slaves or freeing them. This is because God is revealing Himself through various cultural settings, and in each setting God ‘moves the ball down the field’ towards God’s full and final revelation. But the whole revelation doesn’t come until late in the book. So, for example, when God called Abraham, God called him out from a culture in which there was both child sacrifice and temple prostitutes as part of worship. God has no temple, and no temple prostitutes, but the request to sacrifice Isaac wasn’t as far fetched then as now, even though it was never God’s intent to kill him. Context and trajectory are huge determinants of a texts meaning, both the original hearers, and to us today.
Do look for trajectories and timeless principles. The biggest key here is found in Hebrews 1, which says that God has been speaking to humanity for a long time, but the fullest and most accurate representation of God’s heart is found in Christ. He is the final act, the full ethical display of God’s heart. As a result, yes, turning the other cheek is better than ‘an eye for eye’, crossing social divides and serving is better than genocide. Jesus’ mission statement of serving the poor, bringing release to captives, and setting free those who are oppressed trumps all other endeavors, including those that cherry pick old testament laws which were given to a theocracry and impose them on a nation, or even a church. Jesus is the end of the game, the trump card, the finale of ethical display.
One God? Absolutely. But one God who “spoke to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). We need to learn from every single word because there are principles, starting in Genesis 1:1 that have timeless value. But principles are not precepts, and knowing which are which, and when to apply them is vital.
David Kinnaman’s book “UnChristian” addresses polling evidence regarding why the church is losing emerging generations. Though he doesn’t address the cherry picking of Bible texts directly, he does say that Christians are viewed as shallow, sheltered, and out of touch with reality. Where the faith is real though, and intellectually honest, nothing could be a further from the truth. In fact, the ethic of Jesus has been shown, time and again, to be the answer to culture’s most pressing problems, from racism, to war, from money to marriage. But Jesus’ answers aren’t derived from cherry picking. They’re derived from prayerful, thoughtful engagement with the whole of the Bible, looking for the trajectory of God’s plan and ethic, both of which will be seen most fully in Jesus!