We live in a world that does not have clear answers to many of life's most difficult questions. Sometimes, people imagine they can find their answers in a single book—the Bible. People turn to the Bible as if it were a direct line to God, and as if God has only one truth for all times and all situations. People turn to the Bible for answers to questions that it never was intended to answer. I have seen my share of those questions right here on this website.
"What does the Bible say about marriage?"
"What does the Bible say about homosexuality?"
"What does the Bible say about lying?"
"What does the Bible say about women's rights?"
"What does the Bible say about having sex on Shabbat?"
"What does the Bible say about masturbation?"
"What does the Bible say about New York?"
"What does the Bible say about being born on February 29?"
"What does the Bible say about Barack Obama?"
I can't count them all, but I would say that there have been more than a thousand searches leading to this site in which someone has asked a question phrased like, "What does the Bible say about…" (It should be no surprise that there are a lot of searches that have to do with sex, too. I'm told that it's a very popular topic on the internet.)
Of course it is absurd to ask what the Bible thinks about a city that was founded 1,500 years after the latest biblical text was written, about a U.S. President who was born 300 years after that, or about a date in a calendar system that that Bible's authors did not even use. But there is a deeper problem I see in these question about the fundamental assumptions that many people have about the Bible.
These questions suggest that people hope to find definitive answers to important issues in their lives by opening a Bible. For example, one person found this website by asking Google, "What does the Bible say about offense in marriage?" The questioner only stayed on the site for seven seconds, so it's possible that he or she did not find an answer. But what answer was this person hoping to find?
Was this a question from a man who is frustrated that his wife's behavior toward him is offensive? Is he hoping that the Bible will say something that will allow him to tell his wife, "God says your behavior is wrong. It's in the Bible!" It is as if people believe that the Bible is the ultimate way to settle all debates. If you can find a passage in the Bible that supports your cause, you can throw it in the face of someone else and declare yourself to be saintly and your opponent to be sinful.
Fortunately, the Bible does not work that way. In fact, since the Bible is written by and for a society very different from our own, sometimes, the best we can do is to find the underlying values in the Bible and struggle to fit them into our situations.
For example, if the questioner had asked me, "What does the Bible say about offense in marriage," I might have pointed out the story about Abram, Sarai and Hagar. Sarai, being barren, told her husband, Abram, to sleep with her slave, Hagar, and to father a child with her. Abram obeyed his wife. When he did, though, Sarai became jealous of Hagar and blamed Abram for her plight. Hagar then ran away because of the terrible way Sarai treated her, until an angel of God told Hagar to go back and be comforted by the knowledge that her son would become the father of a great nation (Genesis 16).
In the 21st century, we look at this story and wonder what it could possibly teach us. We don't have slaves. We don't practice polygamy. We find the whole story impossible in our times. Yet, this is a story about "offense in marriage" and its answers are all ambiguity.
Rather than stating clearly which characters are in the right or in the wrong, the Bible describes an emotionally messy situation. Now, that is something to which we can relate. We know all about having messy lives.
Sarai was grief-striken by her inability to have children, and she made a rash choice—just as we might. Abram was torn between his desire to have children, his loyalty to his wife, and the need to preserve the peace of his family—just as we might. Hagar was confused by the misery of her life weighed against the promise of a better future for her child—just as we might. In this story, there are no winners and no losers. Each character just tries to deal with a difficult situation and to do what is right in a world with no clear moral signposts—just as we should.
That, more than anything else, is what the Bible says about life. It is messy. It poses problems with which we must struggle. The Bible is not a rulebook for life. Rather, it is a meditation on the challenges of life, and also the possibility that we can make good choices despite the confusion we sense around us.
Some might object that the Bible does contain rules. In fact, a huge portion of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is consumed with the promulgation of God's commandments. Surely, that makes up a rulebook, doesn't it?
Yes and no. Both Judaism and Christianity—the two religions that hold the Hebrew Bible as a sacred text—have long traditions of interpreting the commandments of the Bible in ways that travel far from the written text. As a Jew, you cannot ask, "What does the Bible say about…?," without also asking the question, "What do the rabbis, commentators and interpreters say about it?" When you do, you will find that the authorities often disagree with each other. In Judaism, the struggle to understand the text is the mirror of the struggle each of us must undertake to make the best choices we can in a life of uncertainty.
"What does the Bible say about…" is not a bad question. It's just that the answers we should expect are not simple. They are as complicated as life itself. Our job is to look for inspiration in the Bible—not easy solutions—and to come to our own understanding of what the words mean to us.
So, if you want to know what the Bible says about the President, or Leap Year Day, or sex, then you should open it up—and open up yourself as well.
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Pinchas: Five Sisters Who Turned the Key to Unlock the Torah
The Joyful Imperative to Interpret