Movement is meaning
How to read what the Bible says on slavery, war, women, etc.

Harold N. Miller

Many Bible texts do not express an ultimate ethic but only incremental movement towards an ultimate ethic.

For instance, slavery texts often trouble us. They show a journey toward abolitionism (the ultimate ethic which God wants us to move toward regarding slavery); but they are not there yet.

Exodus 21:20-21 says a master can beat a slave as long as the slave can get up in a day or two, although a master who beats a slave to death is to be punished. Bill Webb tells the story of a neighbor at a party reading this verse to him upon learning that he was a Bible prof. He kept saying "I don't think you read it correctly" until the neighbor was quite frustrated—and everyone at the party was listening! Then he explained, "You read the words on the page very well. But it's important to read an ancient text in the context in which it was written. In the rest of the Ancient Near East you could beat a slave to death with no incrimination. So if you were a slave back then, you would have preferred to live in Israel." Then Webb had him look at vv26-27 about an owner maiming a slave. In the American South, owners maimed slaves to maintain control; but the Bible says the owner must set free a maimed slave. And they looked at Deut. 23:15-16 where Israel is instructed to help an escaped slave rather than return them to their master. (The Apostle Paul continues this pattern: he came down hard on slave-traders [1 Tim. 1:9-10]; he leaned on his friend Philemon to treat the slave Onesimus as his "dear brother" [Philem. 1:15-17]; he viewed slave and free as having equal worth: all are one in Christ [1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11] and masters are not higher in God's eyes [Eph. 6:9].)

We look for the Bible's "redemptive movement" as we read it. The biblical texts on slaves move in the direction of valuing them. (The texts on women show similar movement. And the texts dealing with war show movement away from violence.) The movement is what has meaning: it shows the redemptive aim of God and helps us discern the ethic that is God's goal for us. We are not to camp at the various biblical texts affirming the use of violence or women's public silence, etc., saying "these are what God instructed." We are to journey toward the ultimate ethic regarding war, women, etc.

Many Christians question the inspiration of those parts of the Bible that fall short of the ultimate ethic. Yet our stance as a church is that those passages are God speaking rather than biblical writers getting things wrong. "We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God" (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 4).

Why would God inspire biblical authors to give instructions that fall far short of the ultimate ethic? Why would God stoop to say things like "a master can beat a slave as long as the slave can get up in a day or two"? I empathize with those who question the inspiration and goodness of the Bible because they see the sub-gospel character of much of it. But those texts nonetheless can be God speaking to those to whom that passage was written.

Perhaps this analogy can help. Suppose we visit the home of friends who moved into a rough part of town to build relationships with people there. And we see ashtrays through the house. It can appear that our friends encourage and affirm smoking. The way to learn how they feel about smoking is to observe the direction in which they try to move people: when they have opportunity, do they nudge and encourage the neighbors away from smoking? If so, we would presume that the ashtrays are not to encourage smoking but are part of a commitment to relate to neighbors who would have stayed away if they couldn't smoke.

Similarly, when we see biblical texts on slavery or war or women keeping silent or Gentile exclusion or animal sacrifices, we look at the direction or trajectory of the Bible to learn God's stance on those things. And we see many passages encouraging the people of God toward treating slaves as siblings, releasing women's gifts, honoring marriage vows, choosing suffering love rather than taking a life, and welcoming all ethnic groups.

The passages seeming to affirm slavery, women-being-silent, etc. are like our friends' ashtrays. Those passages are not telling us God's ultimate values. God is not affirming those things for all time but is relating to people according to what they can receive and can do (something every good parent does). Those texts are God giving that original audience as much as they could hear and freely follow. When people are unable to do God's will "on earth as it is in heaven," God does not give up on them but stoops to their level of existence. For instance, God instituted the Old Covenant ceremonial laws even though they fell far short of the ideal toward which God was moving humanity; in faith I say that God did so because it was the most helpful way to patiently and graciously move persons toward Jesus and the New Covenant.

Once I allow God to accommodate to where people are at (God truly has no other possible choice if God wants to partner with humans without violating their wills), then my reading of the Bible is no longer a series of frustrations at all the sub-gospel instances. They are no longer what is important. Scripture's trajectory is what has meaning. My reading is now a series of discoveries that fill me with joy as I see beautiful glimpses of God, along with the necessary accommodation, giving humanity nudges toward the ideal, foretastes of the coming age!

[Session 8 of my class on Getting all we can from Scripture gives much more on trajectory showing Scripture's meaning.]