This is Part 1 of a series:
The Bible can be studied as a historical product – a collection of writings produced over time by a people (predominantly Israelites) that chronicles their path through history through the eyes of their religious faith. The Bible certainly is this, and I think there’s a lot of value to studying the Bible in this way – a way that is almost entirely overlooked by many modern expressions of Christianity. It’s the one thing everyone can agree on in terms of what the Bible is.
Studying the Bible in this way helps us because we begin to see these Scriptures through the eyes of the community that birthed them. What did these texts mean to them? What did it remind them of when they read them hundreds of years later? What were their questions, concerns, and big events and how did these Scriptures respond to and illuminate those issues? When we do this, we move closer to understanding their Scriptures as they did. We get closer to intent. We hear less of the noise of what we create in our own heads and begin to hear these spirits speak for themselves.
For all the Abrahamic religions, some or all of the writings in the Bible are more than that, though. Christians do not read the Bible the same way we might read the Baal Cycle or the Eddas. “Isn’t that interesting what these people believed?”
There is a sense in which these Scriptures are meant to speak to us, today. They are supposed to, in some way, help us understand our present circumstances, give us guidance in them, and encourage us as we live through them. They are, in some way, meant to be communication to us meant for us from the same God who is depicted in them.
But how does that work? Is it even important to talk about?
I think it is, and let me give you an example.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a man who is a recovering addict. I am his sponsor. He is a Christian and, like many recovering addicts, is having a hard time as he tries to repair his relationship with his spouse.
As part of this project, he and his wife see a Christian counselor together, and recently, she (the counselor) shared with him Ezekiel 16. Here is a portion:
Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; I will stop you from playing the whore, and you shall also make no more payments. So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer. Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things; therefore, I have returned your deeds upon your head, says the Lord God.
Ezekiel 16:35-43 (NRSV)
On this basis, the Christian counselor said, my friend’s problems with his wife were a reflection of God’s anger at his sins, so he should expect a period where God uses her to punish him, but eventually God will exhaust His anger toward my friend and peace and reconciliation will follow.
Yes, a therapist said this. The reason things are difficult with your wife is because God is enraged at you and hasn’t gotten it out of His system, yet.
Not only would I say this is a tremendously irresponsible application of Ezekiel 16, it’s an actively destructive one. Imagine the impact this would have on you if you were a repentant addict trying to put your life back together. Imagine the impact it would have on your view of God and His disposition toward you, and what impact that might have on your spirituality. Imagine the impact it would have on your spouse to hear that they are the dispensers of God’s wrath toward you in your life and the exhaustion of His wrath must take place before any reconciliation.
Of course, it doesn’t take a very in-depth reading of Ezekiel 16 to see that this understanding is way out of line. God is talking about nations, one of which is in covenant with Him (Israel), and how they have forgotten their covenant with YHWH to make allies of pagan nations and their gods. Therefore, they will experience in history betrayal by the very nations they are trying to earn favor with, and this is God’s wrath toward them. However, there will come a time when their oppression by these other nations will end and they will be reconciled to God.
There is absolutely nothing in this text that even hints that this is how God reacts to an individual’s behavior or that this is God’s habitual pattern for dealing with anything. It’s how God is dealing with a nation at a point in history. The pronouncement by the prophet warns Israel of what will happen to her if she continues this course of action, and when it does happen, will help her understand what those events mean and give her hope that it won’t last forever. This is not a textbook entry on How God Deals with Sinners.
This may be an egregious example, but only because of degree. This type of applying the Scripture to our contemporary lives – this looking for abstract or superficial commonalities and dropping them into our present circumstances – is very common, and the results run the gamut from helpful to harmless to destructive.
So, I think it’s important to talk about how we might apply the Scriptures in ways that respect what the Scriptures are and what they meant. It doesn’t mean that all our applications have to be positive ones any more than it was for the original authors and readers of those Scriptures. But perhaps we can at least make sure we’re on surer ground when we derive contemporary meaning from the Bible, and at the very least, understanding that we are transposing texts that do not primarily have us or our circumstances in view will grant us some humility in our discourse when we talk with one another about what the Bible might be saying to us.