Those Tough Texts

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The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.

Those are admirably bold statements.  But they don’t really help us know what to do with scores of confusing, vexing, and just plain startling Bible texts. 

First-time readers of the Hebrew Scriptures – what Christians call the Old Testament – can be forgiven for wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into when Leviticus 11:9-12 makes it clear that God’s people must never order shrimp cocktails, and that children who sass their parents have just signed their own death warrants. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

For years, an unattributed open letter has been making its way around the internet.  Here are some of the questions it gleefully lobs at Bible readers:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9).  The problem is my neighbors.  They claim the odor is not pleasing to them.  Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.  In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

Leviticus 25:44 states that I am indeed allowed to possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.  A friend of mine claims this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians.  Can you clarify?  Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath (that is, Saturday).  Exodus 35:2 clearly states that he should be put to death.  Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight.  I have to admit that I wear reading glasses.  Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean.  But may I still play football if I wear gloves? 

My uncle has a farm.  He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments of two different kinds of thread: cotton and polyester blend.  He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot.  Is it really necessary to go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them?  (Leviticus 24:10-16)  Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family gathering? 

Now, this is great fun – until we realize we actually have to respond to the important issues being raised.

Let’s put it like this:  If someone is serious about believing and obeying whatever the Bible says, what are we supposed to do with the myriad verses that seem completely out of step with present-day convictions concerning human rights, slavery as a social evil, the empowerment of women, and the freedom to eat and dress as we please – hard-fought liberties that most people would never seriously consider abandoning? 

The Christian answer to this question is dramatic and consequential:  Because Jesus the Messiah has come, the Hebrew Scriptures have been fulfilled

Here’s how Jesus put it:  “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete… Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom.” (Matthew 5:17,19, “The Message”)

What does it mean that Jesus has “fulfilled” or “completed” the Scriptures? 

It means that Christians are called to honor the continuities between the Old and New Testaments.  For instance, Christians joyfully join hands with Jews in celebrating the goodness of God’s creation; the key role of Abraham as an example of faith; the enduring validity of the Ten Commandments; and God’s never-ending calls to personal holiness and care for the poor. 

But followers of Jesus must also recognize the discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments. 

For instance, many verses in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) concern specific regulations for a period  of history that has come and gone.  Centuries before the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was a theocracy:  God’s people were to be governed by God alone.  Every one of the verses cited by the author of the internet letter concern a period of history in which the Hebrews were transitioning from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land – a season that is now over. 

As noted biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out in his book The Last Word, the arrival of the Messiah means that the “theocratic rules” no longer have a specific claim on our lives.

For instance, there is no longer a designated place for worship, since Jesus is the new Temple.  There is no longer a complex system of animal sacrifices, since Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for human sin.  There are no longer “purity laws” that separate Jews from Gentiles – restrictions concerning food, clothing, and the length of one’s hair – since Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, including Gentiles, and not just ethnic Israel.

Wright offers a memorable illustration.

“When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose.”

The people who settle on the far shore will always be those people who once traveled in that ship.    

But the voyage is over.  And it’s not going to happen again.

Think of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.  They could always look back on the rules that uniquely applied when they were sailing on the Mayflower (“Do everything the Captain says!” and “Go below decks if there’s a storm!”) But those rules – which were once matters of life and death – were no longer valid when they were planting corn and building cabins in the New World. 

What does it mean to follow Jesus?  We’re now living in the New World. 

That means that many specific regulations – never order lobster Newberg, be sure to sacrifice a lamb when you have a new baby, stay clear of tattoo parlors – belong to a previous chapter of history.

For people living in the New World (that is, under the New Covenant of Jesus), is the Torah worth exploring in depth? 

Absolutely.  It teems with deep wisdom.  The Torah is where we hear God’s timeless calls to love our neighbors, tell the truth, pursue justice, and feed the hungry.

But when you get to those verses about pigs and pigskins?

Go ahead and throw the football with your kids.  Right after you finish that BLT.