The Bible is complicated.
First, it's a translation. Or even a translation of a translation. And if you read the footnotes carefully, you see that some of those Hebrew words in the Old Testament are wild guesses...and how you guess at some of those words can completely change the meaning of the passage. Anyone who's taken a foreign language knows how hard it is to say what you mean and has probably encountered times when you simply couldn't say what you mean. The words just aren't the same.
Second, culture doesn't translate well at all, and the Bible is quite confusingly full of culture. Take slavery, for instance. Slavery is a given in the Bible, and in no place does the Bible offer up a direct challenge to it. Paul indirectly does, as we'll see later. There's no commandment against slavery, and in fact, there are a number of laws regulating treatment of slaves.
That bird doesn't fly today. Modern Christians oppose slavery in all its forms, and the right to own another person is universally seen as contemptuous and barbaric. God has revealed to us through history and our own reason and compassion that slavery is wrong. No Christian in his or her right mind would want to go back to a world in which people's ears are nailed to doorposts by law, even if that law is scriptural.
Other cultural norms--big and small--change even in the course of the Bible. The polygamy and polytheism of the early Old Testament are replaced with their mono forms. Levirate marriage, in which a dead man's brother must marry the widow, changes significantly between Judah and Tamar's marriage and Ruth and Boaz's.
How, then, do we read the Bible as a guide to living in the world today? What cultural components should we keep, and which, like slavery and Levirate law, can we safely discard?
I recently read an article on an extremely conservative Catholic website that argued against sending women to college. It's a waste of money, might lead women to sin, might lead their parents to sin, might make them marry the wrong men, and simply isn't necessary for wives/mothers/nuns. Mothers just need enough education to home-school their children if they want, but no more. Young couples are encouraged to buy cheap life insurance so if the man, whose duty it is to earn money for the woman's support, dies, the woman will have money to live.
I confess, this article rendered me temporarily speechless with fury.
When my mind could form words again, those words ran something like this: But what if the man turns into a scum-bag and leaves his family? What if he becomes disabled and can't work? Long-term disability insurance isn't cheap at all. What if he starts beating his wife and kids, and what if she can't leave because she has no place to go and no way to support or protect her children? What if God calls her to ministry or to brain surgery or to government service? What if? What if?!!!
This particular stand on women's education is a call to return to the culture of Biblical times, when women were completely dependent on male relatives for financial support. Biblical culture is being held up as a guide for modern family structure. Hebrew and Jewish women weren't expected to be formally educated; therefore, Christian women don't need to be educated today.
But consider that Levirate marriage between Judah and Tamar. Tamar's weak status in the culture of the time forced her to prostitute herself, become pregnant by her father-in-law, and risk being killed for sexual impurity...all to show Judah his obligation under the law. That she wins against the odds of her time and continues the line of David is an act of divine love correcting an injustice. God takes what is bad and uses it to His good.
That doesn't justify or excuse or legitimize the bad. Not at all. What it shows is that God's plan is about dignity and love. We humans, even good ones, screw that up for God all the time.
Is the culture that put Tamar in such a horrible position a culture of love and compassion? Is it a model for God's kingdom on earth? Or is it a product of sin, of the consequences of power misused and abused in ways that deny some people their dignity? Judah does right by Tamar, eventually, observing God's law for his time and demonstrating his righteousness. Also, the biblical laws relating to slavery served to give slaves as much protection and dignity as one can possibly have under the circumstances.
Under the circumstances.
Our circumstances today are different.
So what is God's law for our time? How do we live in righteousness here and now? How do we understand "God's kingdom come" and how do we play our part in making that happen in our time?What sort of philosophy should we use to interpret and translate the Bible today?
Seeing that we are Christians, I think we need to read the red parts of the Bible to answer these questions. Mark Lowry, a Christian comedian, observes that reading the red parts of the Bible will mess you up. He's right, because as complicated and hard as the whole Bible is to digest, Jesus' words are surprisingly straightforward and culture-neutral...yet terribly, terribly hard to follow through on.
Here's the gist of it. Forgive each other...repeatedly. Do not worry about what others are doing or not doing; just do what you can do to feed His sheep. Healthy people don't need doctors; serve the sick at heart and in body and soul. Lift others up; humble yourself. If your best isn't good enough, then shake the dust off your sandals and move on to serve where you can: you are not the world's Savior, but you can be a part of the living Savior's work. Talk to the people you're not supposed to talk to, the people who are different from you. Talk to them in love and compassion. Do not judge. Eat when you are hungry; feed others who are hungry.
Love God, love your neighbor, love each other.
It's a philosophy of love.
How does Jesus' philosophy of love apply to the issue of educating women today? Well, no one should be hungry.
That includes hunger for knowledge, hunger for strength, hunger to do good in the world. College education gives women and men the power to do enormous good in their homes and in the world. Limiting women to doing good in the home is a waste of the intelligence and the multiple talents God gives them.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a stay-at-home mom and feel incredibly blessed to be one. But one day my children will be grown and gone from the nest. What will I do then? Is my usefulness done? Not at all. I want to go back to teaching college English courses. I want to go on writing. These are my talents, and I will use them as I can, in God's service and in the world...because in the world is where God put me.
No one will convince me that these are sinful or unwomanly talents, that a desire to stand in front of a bunch of adults and preach the good news of proper grammar and epic similes is immodest. By God's gifts, I am good at it. I'm not hiding that light under a bushel. This current phase of my life is about caring for my children and I'm blessed to do that by staying home, but that phase is just a season in life, a part of who I am. It is not all of me, it is not the entirety of my life, it isn't the sum of all God has made me to be. What came before and what will come after are important as well.
I learned the value of education at my mother's knee. When my mother graduated from high school, she asked her father to send her to college to be an art teacher. He said it was a waste of money to educate women...she was just going to get married and have babies.
When I was in second grade and my sister in kindergarten, my father left our family with meager child support and no alimony. My mother had a high-school diploma and not enough job experience to support us.
Mom, my sister, and I moved in with my grandparents, who supported us until mom got her degree in dental hygiene and could support us herself. As a young girl, I was indelibly impressed by my mother's actions. Not once did my sister and I feel neglected by our single working mother, not once did we feel unloved or uncared for by her. Instead, she set an example of strength and courage and success for us that we both carried into our adult lives.
My sons take for granted my presence in their lives. When we were visiting my sister in the spring, my youngest asked my sister why she works outside the home. She's a physical therapist and answered that it makes her happy to help lots of people get well and feel better. She's healing the sick.
She's doing God's work in the world.
Yet there are Christians who think this is a sin simply because my sister has ovaries and has made babies? Who think that she should be a financial slave to her husband rather than a force for healing in the world?
I know the opponents to educating women are smaller in number now than when my grandfather told my mother that college was a waste of her time and his money. The vast majority of Americans no longer buy into that cultural paradigm. We're trying to find our way to equality, and the road is rough and uneven but getting better.
The fact is that men and women are biologically different. Most women are equipped for motherhood, and most men are capable of greater physical strength than most women. It's also a fact that women are every bit as intelligent as men and can learn everything that men can learn. Clearly, today's culture is far less about procreation and physical strength than it is about cultivated, educated intelligence.
As we realize God's kingdom on earth, as we move toward that level of love and compassion, we must move forward toward it, not backward away from it. This is hard. John Wesley provided a method of doing this in his four-fold way of discovering one's faith...through Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Some people want to discount reason and experience in favor of Scripture and tradition, want to move culture and faith practice back to a time of slavery and oppression, want to discount all the lessons reason shows us for lifting up the weak and vulnerable and instead push women back into "divinely" dictated weakness and vulnerability.
Now might be a good time for Paul's comment on slavery. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes,
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Christ, in HIS kingdom, we are all one. Remember that in Eden, God made Eve from Adam's rib...to stand by his side, not under his foot.
To stand side by side, we all need equal opportunity to learn and work together, to feed our minds, to use our talents to serve God and each other in compassion and love.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.