Why we keep disagreeing on the Bible
Andrew Judd on reading the hard stories
“So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” This is what Abraham Lincoln reportedly said on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, Stowe’s novel might not be solely responsible for the American Civil War, but it certainly roused many Christians in the north to the intolerable suffering of slaves in the south.
The novel is a fascinating study in biblical hermeneutics: the study of interpretation. The characters give voice to the different ways 19th-century Christians understood the Bible on the issue of slavery.
Some are Apologists. These slave owners, politicians and preachers know their Bibles – in Greek and Hebrew! They point to Paul’s instructions on the mutual obligations of slaves and masters to give apostolic support for their economic reliance on involuntary labour. They remind their slaves of how Hagar was commanded to return to her mistress in Genesis 16.
Others are Abolitionists, and they read the Bible quite differently. These are also the Christians Stowe depicts as most alive to the sympathies of Christ. One of the most moving moments in the novel is when a mother and her 10-month-old baby are sold to different owners and separated during the night. Uncle Tom, the slave at the centre of the story, expresses his considered opinion that tearing a child from its mother’s breast is not something Jesus would have approved of.
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To the Ambivalents, the Bible means whatever powerful people want it to mean.
Still others are Ambivalent. (“Cynical” might be more accurate, but it doesn’t start with the letter A.) Though Augustine St Clare of New Orleans becomes one of Uncle Tom’s owners, he sees right through the Apologists’ biblical arguments in defence of slavery. To him, slavery is justified not by theology but by economics. He explains to his northerner cousin that the plantation owners have money to make, and the clergymen and politicians have planters to please, and so they “warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service.” To the Ambivalents, the Bible means whatever powerful people want it to mean.
It is unsettling to be reminded that Christians once seriously disagreed on something we find so clear today. You’ll hear this 19th-century debate over slavery referenced in contemporary debates on other issues: “Just as we were wrong then, one day we’ll look back and realise we were wrong about …”
This is a powerful rhetorical move, so long as we don’t think too carefully about the underlying assumption that every time we change our mind on something it’s for the better. I don’t think slavery is a simple parallel for any hermeneutical issue currently facing us. But I do think reading about debates of another generation can help us reflect on our own hermeneutical dilemmas.
At this year’s School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement, held in Sydney in January by Anglican Deaconess Ministries, a group of us set about trying to think about this phenomenon of disagreement. I suggested that one of the six reasons why we, like the characters in Stowe’s novel, often disagree on the Bible is genre.
Consider this interaction between Mr Wilson and George, a runaway slave whose master mistreated him. Mr Wilson is sympathetic, but thinks George should return to his master:
“George, you’ve got a hard master – in fact, he is – well he conducts himself reprehensibly – I can’t pretend to defend him. But you know how the angel commanded Hagar to return to her mistress, and submit herself under the hand.”
Our disagreements over Scripture often begin as disagreements over genre.
He’s referring to a sad story in Genesis 16. In a misguided attempt to give God a running start with delivering the many descendants promised in Genesis 12, Abram marries and impregnates his wife’s servant Hagar (at his wife’s suggestion). This, as you will have guessed, is a terrible idea. His childless wife Sarai then complains to Abram that pregnant Hagar is treating her with contempt. Abram, the powerful, irreproachable patriarch (ahem), pursues domestic harmony by telling Sarai she can do whatever she likes to get back at Hagar. Sarai mistreats Hagar terribly, and Hagar, quite reasonably, runs away. But on the way, Hagar meets the angel of the Lord who says something to her, prompting her return.
Why does Mr Wilson understand the story about Hagar as an instruction to slaves against running away, while other Christians (myself included) find this reading and application bizarre?
The Bible is taken as a series of spiritual life-hacks: descriptions of holy people doing holy things that we can and should try to replicate at home.
As my Old Testament class at Ridley College gets sick of me saying, the three most important things about reading the Old Testament are: genre, genre and genre. Our disagreements over Scripture often begin as disagreements over genre.
What kind of a thing is Genesis 16? Mr Wilson seems to read the story of Hagar in relation to the genre of morality tale. The Bible is taken as a series of spiritual life-hacks: descriptions of holy people doing holy things that we can and should try to replicate at home.
My problem with this is that in Hebrew narrative (the genre I read Genesis 16 in relation to) there are seldom any moral superheroes – just flawed humans caught up in the glorious plans of a patient and powerful God.
As my friend Andrea Abeyasekera says, “narrative is not normative!” Just because it happened doesn’t mean we should always go and do likewise.
There are seldom any moral superheroes – just flawed humans caught up in the glorious plans of a patient and powerful God.
Biblical narrators often describe horrific events and morally questionable attitudes with little comment; like a gritty modern novel, it’s up to us as readers to read between the lines. The reason why Hagar returns is crucial to understanding the implications of the story for us. It’s not because leaving her mistress was a sin. Hagar, having now “seen the One who sees me,” receives from the Lord the vindication and protection that her husband Abram failed to provide. She returns with her own promise of blessing through the line of Ishmael. Whatever we make of this (and it’s certainly morally complex!), it’s clear the narrator is not offering the kind of straightforward spiritual life-hack Mr Wilson seems to expect when he opens his Bible.
It’s clear the various groups are playing by very different rules.
Genres are a bit like games. At my local park there are always multiple games going on. Some I recognise: the one with the round ball, the one with the squashed ball, the one with the bat. Other people love playing new games; they sometimes even have a sign explaining what it’s called and where they can learn more about it. While the players all share a common field, and sometimes even a similar-looking ball, it’s clear the various groups are playing by very different rules. And if the park is double-booked this can lead to great confusion, and sometimes angry confrontations.
When we read the Bible we meet other people on the oval who seem to be interested in the same book, but are playing according to the rules of a different genre. They are doing things with that book that are startling to us (perhaps even startling to the author!). Before we assume they are idiots, or are playing in bad faith, it’s worth stopping to ask: what game are you playing?
Andrew Judd is an Associate Lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College.