Ask Probing and Proper Questions from the Bible

I am looking forward to engaging Rob Bell's latest book, What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything, published by HarperOne. In this new book, Rob explores the humanity in the Bible, because one cannot "get to the holy without going through the human" (link), which is a healthy and overtly incarnational perspective. He helps us to ask proper questions when encountering the scriptures, questions such as:

  • What's the story that's unfolding here? 
  • Why did people find it important to tell it?
  • What was it that moved them to record these words?
  • What was happening in the world at that time?
  • What does this passage / story / poem / verse / book tell us about how people understood who they were and who God was at that time?" (link)

The questions are vital to our understanding of not only the context in which various people exist but also for our practical lives if we are to live according to biblical values. For example, when we read, "You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness," which is a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse, "while she is in her menstrual uncleanness" (Lev. 18:19); and we then read that all of what is listed thus far in the chapter is considered "an abomination" unto the LORD (Lev. 18:29); and that the punishment for committing "an abomination" is death (Lev. 18:29); then we had better ask some serious questions about the practical relevancy of such commands.

Consider also the honor/shame worldview in which the people mentioned in the entire Bible (as well as most all Middle Eastern and Far Eastern peoples today) exist.1 These people live their lives in community. Whereas the West is individualized, largely compartmentalized, and each person is individually held accountable for his or her actions, and words, and maintains his or her own "voice," in the Middle and Far East people think communally. When an individual commits a wrong act, the community is affected, and a cultural shame pervades over an entire family or people group.

Consider as well that such people are territorial and the men in any given area will staunchly and self-sacrifically defend their land. This helps us understand a passage such as the Sodom and Gomorrah event at Genesis 19:1-11 (as well as the narrative of the Levite's concubine at Judges 19:1-30). Foreign men enter these villages, and the reaction of the men who dwell within the walls of these villages -- the majority of whom have wives and children of their own -- sham these foreigners by robbing them of their culturally-perceived manhood (in cultures which honor masculinity as defined in their era), and accomplish such by power-raping the foreign men.

How does the above cultural and historical information help us in understanding and rightly interpreting what is read in such passages? Regarding the Leviticus 18:19 passage, we suggest that such laws, while particularly significant to the Jewish people, who are to inherit the Promised Land granted to them by the LORD their covenantal God, such laws, while some of them may retain relevancy, are not to be imposed in our modern era (within a context of a nation which values include the separation of church and state -- that neither control the other); nor do we heed the punishments for disobeying any command listed in the book today -- at least, not if any believer intends to maintain any semblance of being "a New Testament Christian."

Regarding the Genesis 19 and Judges 19 passages, we understand from explicit cultural practices that what is referred to in the texts concerning men "knowing" the other men in question is not contextually "homosexual" in nature as we define homosexuality today; meaning, such passages cannot in any sense be used as proscribing committed and monogamous homosexual relationships in our modern era, granting our modern understanding of homosexuality proper and same-sex relationships. That some conservative evangelical traditionalists still use these texts in shaming the LGBTQ community is, ironically, shameful (and entirely ignorant) of such Christians.

I use the word "ignorant" here in its most classical sense, i.e., one being without proper knowledge. Yet the problem with these evangelicals is not only in their ignoring certain cultural practices in the Bible but in their method of interpretation. I noticed these aspects in listening to their sermons and reading their commentaries and blogs. Many of them tend to assume a naïve realist approach to hermeneutics (and naïve realism should have been abandoned by all decades ago) and conclude with troubling interpretations. Let me offer a brief example on the subject of homosexuality.

A conservative evangelical will read a passage like Leviticus 18:22, "And with mankind [זָכָ֔ר, zāḵār, a generic term referring to a male at Genesis 1:27; 5:2] you shall not lie as with [or, as you do with] womankind; it [is] an abomination"; (emphasis added) or, lit., "You shall not sleep the sleep of a woman with a man," and, based upon what he perceives as "a plain reading of the text" (a naïve realist hermeneutical approach), insists that the author, being inspired by God, forbids same-sex relationships. He will not ask any further probing questions of the text because he believes that he can gain all the insight required for a proper understanding merely by reading the words.

Yet the author of Leviticus uses the Hebrew euphemism לְגַלֹּ֣ות עֶרְוָ֑ה, to "uncover the nakedness of" someone, when referring to the forbiddance of sexual intercourse with certain persons (cf. Lev. 18:6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19), but he does not use that expression when proscribing some form of homosexual sexual activity at Leviticus 18:22 (and Leviticus 20:13). Why? The author does not even use the Hebrew expression תִתֵּ֥ן (Lev. 18:20), lit., to "have sexual intercourse with" someone, at Leviticus 18:22 in proscribing "the male engagement of sex with another male as with, or perhaps in the same manner as that of a woman." Are we not to ask the question, Why?

Interpreting rightly the scriptures (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15) is paramount for anyone daring to read and obey those scriptures. Do I think that all of my interpretations of the scriptures are fully accurate? No. I can grant evidence and reasons for why I believe what I believe but I would not be so foolish as to insist that all of my beliefs are without interpretive error. A proper rule for rightly interpreting the scriptures is repeated ad nauseum among conservative evangelicals: the three rules for interpretation are context, context, context. This, too, is a naïve realist motif. They tend to forget that even the context is "a context for an already assumed interpretation."2

Stanley Fish, author of the previous quote, also notes that a "text, context, and interpretation all emerge together, as a consequence of a gesture (the declaration of belief) that is irreducibly interpretive." As an inevitable result, then, when
one interpretation wins out over another, it is not because the first has been shown to be in accordance with the facts but because it is from the perspective of its assumptions that the facts are now being specified. It is these assumptions, and not the facts they make possible, that are at stake in any critical dispute.3
In other words, even "facts" are interpreted and embraced, like context and sentences and words, and are either accepted or rejected based largely upon the assumptions (or presumptions) of the one being shown said facts. For anyone among us to change her opinions on any given topic, she must first consider that, perhaps, her cherished views are inaccurate at best. If she proceeds to study the matter further, and is granted contrary evidence to her long-held tradition, she will weigh the evidence and may (or may not) change her perspective. But this all begins by asking proper questions.

Practically, then, a conservative so-called Christian (I personally do not count him a Christian) like pastor Steven Anderson can be shown the facts of the Sodom and Gomorrah event -- including the historical cultural facts of the men of those villages being married to women, having children of their own, and, due to their honor/shame societal practices, power-rape foreign men who enter their territory -- and such facts will not affect his interpretive assumptions that Genesis 19 and Judges 19 proscribe homosexual relationships. Hence the paramount significance in asking questions as those proposed by Rob Bell in his new book. May we all continue to ask questions.


1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 113-35.

2 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 340.

3 Ibid.