The Bible is Not a Static Book
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There are many wrong ways to read the Bible. Here are a few:
- Out of obligation. God says to read the Bible, so I better do it, even though I don’t want to.
- An Instruction Manual. BIBLE = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Clever, but inaccurate.
- God’s answer book. The Bible has lots of wisdom, but it doesn’t answer every situation of life.
- To win every argument. You know THAT person who is ALWAYS right about the Bible and more than willing to tell you why!
- The daily horoscope. Randomly opening the Bible with your eyes closed and pointing your finger to a verse.
People misread the Bible by considering it a static book where every verse and chapter are equal, it’s all literal, and it all applies to today. The problem here is that the Bible doesn’t behave this way and, if you try and make it, it simply won’t behave itself!
A Progressive Bible
The Bible is a progressive rather than static book. Throughout its pages, we observe the development of thinking and revelation. When the reader understands this, many of the previous problems, barriers, and misunderstandings fall away.
When I came to this realisation, it set me free and caused me to appreciate and value the Bible more than ever. No longer did I stumble over some of the sections of the Hebrew scriptures. You know the ones. Like when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Are you kidding me? Or when God tells Joshua to commit genocide. Or the banning of certain people from the temple. All of these barriers come tumbling down when you realise that the Bible is not a static book.
There are many examples I could use to explain this progression but, for the sake of brevity, let’s consider what the Bible says about slavery.
What about Slavery?
Slavery was commonplace in the ancient world. In light of this, the Bible gives some generally excellent and fair laws on the proper treatment of slaves. This was revolutionary for its time, being the first occasion when rights for slaves (and women & children) were written down. The purpose was to bring justice and order into a culture that before this had been lawless (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Consider the following:
- Some sold themselves into slavery (Leviticus 25:39; Deuteronomy 15:12-17); others were sold to pay debts (2 Kings 4; Nehemiah 5:1-8).
- Jewish slaves could not be held for more than six years and were given a choice to leave (Exodus 21:2). They could voluntarily choose to remain as slaves (Exodus 21:5-6).
- A slave’s religious rights were protected (Exodus 2:10), as were their civil and economic rights; including the right to have their own slaves (2 Samuel 9:9-10).
- Those who came into slavery with a wife and children could take them when they left.
- Slaves who their masters abused were to be set free (Exodus 21:26-27).
- Foreign slaves seeking asylum in Israel were to be protected (Deut. 23:15-16).
What to do about THESE verses?
But other verses appear problematic. Consider Ex 21:20-21, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” So, if you beat them and they live, that’s okay? Apparently!
Consider Leviticus 25:44-46, “You may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” I’ve read over such verses in times passed and tried to pretend they’re not in the Bible. But they ARE in there, and we need to find out why!
If the Bible is a static book and every part of it applies today, we’re in deep doo-doo. If it is a book that progresses, we can equate such verses as quoted above (and many others) to how ancient people viewed life. They were nomadic tribes that were often at war. And so, to them, God was a warrior who would give them victory over their enemies and endorsed their taking captured enemies as slaves. They saw God through the culture of the day. God met them where they were at, but God is not like that.
When Jesus came, he gave us a proper understanding of what God is really like – a saviour that saves and does not kill or destroy.
What about the New Testament?
But even the New Testament is interesting when it comes to slavery. In the Roman Empire of the first century, there were between 70 and 100 million people. About 50% of these were slaves. The economy of the entire Empire was dependent on slavery. Slaves had no legal rights and were the personal property of their masters. Some wealthy Romans owned as many as 20,000 slaves. The master was in complete control of the slaves he owned. Slaves had no right to do as they pleased; they existed to please the master.
The New Testament doesn’t explicitly endorse slavery. It teaches because of slavery’s existence and its fundamental importance to both the economy and the community’s social fabric. And so, in the epistles, we find repeated instructions to Christian slaves and slave owners. Consider 1 Peter 2:18, “You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel.”
Even Jesus used slavery as an example in some of his parables, something graphically illustrated in the film, “Twelve years a slave,” in which Tanner, the slave owner, reads the Bible to his slaves, using it to impress upon them obedience to the slave owner. He dramatically reads the verse, “And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” What follows is a brutal scene as Tanner lays the whip repeatedly into one of his slaves’ flesh, all of which are justified by Scripture. Again, if the Bible is a static book, then we have serious considerations.
If abolitionist, William Wilberforce, were alive in the first century, it would have been impossible for him to have abolished slavery. But, 1800 years later, he could succeed despite opposition from slave owners, businesses, and churches. The 1800s saw the rise of many men and women who began to realise that slavery was wrong. Those who were against them were able to find plenty of Bible verses to say why slavery was acceptable. “The Bible clearly says…!” But overarching themes in Scripture such as the Golden Rule won the day! “Treat others as you want to be treated,” and the Royal Law, “love your neighbour as yourself,” are central ideas in the Bible.
In 1807, King George III signed into law the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, banning trading in enslaved people in the British Empire. In the US, the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, led to abolishing slavery in that country.
Today, once again, it is Christian organisations at the forefront of working against this illicit trade. Why Christians? Because we are motivated by a God who, through the teachings of the Bible, has made it clear that his ultimate purpose is for all people’s freedom.
Slavery is just one instance of the Bible’s progressive revelation. I could have chosen women’s rights, interracial marriage, blood sacrifices, war, capital punishment, gender diversity, or any one of dozens of other examples to demonstrate that the Bible is not a static book. I hope this helps you in your reading and study of the Bible. It’s an incredible book that is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) but never static!