As we’re hopefully seeing, interpreting the Bible is not like following a recipe in a cookbook — just read it and doing what it says. In my last post, we talked about just one complicating factor: the Bible wasn’t written to us. Here and here, we looked at how reading the Bible can become a kind of groupthink that doesn’t admit alternative points of view.
There’s another complicating factor that we need to talk about, though. It’s maybe the one thing that compromises our reading of Scripture most often and most egregiously, but I’m not sure we talk about it enough. We see this factor at work in nearly every church scandal, nearly every instance of spiritual abuse, nearly every time someone does damage to the cause of Christ with an ill-advised tweet, belligerent sermon, or wrong-headed post.
A good beginning point to talk about it is in something I can remember hearing as a kid as an example of how Scripture can be misinterpreted: that people of color bear the curse of Canaan. You may not even know what I’m talking about. In Genesis 9, after the flood, there’s an incident with Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah gets drunk, and in his drunkenness he took off his clothes and was lying naked, apparently passed out, in his tent. Ham, sees this and tells his brothers — maybe in a mocking way. He certainly does nothing to remedy the situation. Shem and Japheth are careful to do everything they can to preserve their father’s dignity. When Noah sobers up, he hears what’s happened and curses Canaan, Ham’s son, and by implication the generations of his family to follow, to be slaves to his brothers and their families.
All it took was that, along with the verses that follow which show Ham as the father of some kingdoms on the African continent, to extrapolate that the descendants of Canaan were slaves because that was God’s will. Christians who benefitted from the slave trade in antebellum America routinely appealed to the curse of Canaan to justify themselves. The idea perpetuated into at least the middle of the 20th century as a “biblical” basis for white supremacy.
Surely I don’t have to say — but I will — that such a reading of that text is so ridiculous that it would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so horrendous. It’s not a justification for the horrors of the African slave trade, which operated on kidnapping and selling human beings — both forbidden by the Law of Moses. It’s not a justification for chattel slavery in America. It’s not about what slaveholders and slave traders in the American South wanted it to be about.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think simple misinterpretation was the problem. No, that’s not right: I know it wasn’t.
This text didn’t get twisted as it did because of historical distance, language uncertainties, or cultural differences. The problem was that those who benefitted from white supremacy wanted this text to be about a curse on black people that allowed them to maintain a facade of religion over their behavior. They utilized it as justification for what they already wanted.
It was a character issue. Nothing less.
During a time when protests against police misconduct were in the news cycle frequently, a friend quoted a piece of 1 Samuel 15:23 at me, in the King James Version — “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” In those verses, Samuel is speaking to King Saul about Saul’s disobedience to a command from God. Saul has tried to argue that he mostly obeyed God, and that if he didn’t obey completely it was because he wanted to honor God. Samuel sees through his attempts to justify himself by saying, “Rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.” (NRSV) He was telling Saul that when he stubbornly refused to fully obey God, it was no less a sin than the “big ones” of worshiping other gods or seeking to use magic to influence those gods.
My friend — who I love and respect — twisted that text to justify his own feelings and opinions about the protests. He argued that the protests were equivalent to disobedience against God through passages like Romans 13:1-2:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.…”
If that’s the argument, though, then the American Revolution was a far worse rebellion against God than a few peaceful protests. It could also apply, couldn’t it, to someone who went to court to fight a speeding ticket?
The fact is that my friend — who, again, I love and respect — had a blind spot. As we all do. His was that he didn’t believe that people of color receive harsher treatment from police, nor that systemic racism exists to any significant degree in America.
Ironically, in landing on that one text to justify his anger about (and probably fear of) the protests, he lost track of the many, many texts in both the Old and New Testaments in which God demands justice, care for the marginalized, and the eradication of favoritism among his people. And in seeking to justify his own attitudes, he may have been repeating the disobedience of Saul.
Point is, even a biblical text can become a means of perpetuating injustice, unrighteousness, wickedness, and abuse if you read it without character.
So maybe character should be the very first consideration when we read Scripture. What do you bring to the reading in terms of prejudices, motives, and intentions? What sins are you trying to justify? What do you want a particular text to say, and why? Who do you seek to exclude with your reading? What are you hiding?
Thing is, we all bring character issues to the reading of the Bible. Every one of us brings that same kind of baggage to every reading. So how in the world do we avoid twisting the Scriptures to say what we want them to, and let them shape our character instead?
Two suggestions, one outward and one inward. First, develop the habit of reading the Bible with others. That’s one of the best ways I know to keep the Bible from becoming our own personal echo chambers, reflecting back exactly what we want to hear. Read with others whenever you can, in church classes, reading groups, online reading plans, and so on. Talk with other believers about texts you’re reading. Include in your circle of reading authors and theologians from a wide variety of traditions. My viewpoint and my friend’s viewpoint on the protests clashed, and I hope it was good for my friend that they did. I know I’ve gained a lot from reading the Bible with him.
Second, we all need to develop some humility about how we read Scripture. As much as we might like to think so, none of us has the Bible figured out. As we read together, expect that your sisters and brothers will read it differently than you do. Accept that, in some cases, they will read it better. Be able to learn from them.
In the next post, we’ll consider how the different kinds of literature in the Bible should affect how we read and interpret.