Don’t conclude before the conclusionPublished 11:06am Monday, January 7, 2013
An alert reader challenged my “Taking the whole Bible as the Bible” (Oct 16) in which I asserted that one cannot understand the Bible without factoring into our thinking all the Bible says on any given subject. By the examples with which he challenged me, he actually proves my point. I earnestly appreciate this, because he gives me the occasion to state this point once more.
The reader cites, accurately and fairly, passages from two books of the Pentateuch (the five books written by Moses), Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These stipulate stoning to death for a number of moral offenses. These disturb me, as well, and anyone reading over them without being disturbed isn’t paying attention.
Two observations pertain to this problem (and it is a problem). This is what the Mosaic Law states, to be sure. It is not without significance, however, that there is no extant historical record of stoning ever having been executed by authority. When it did occur, it was rogue individuals acting on their own. I have found neither record nor reference to any such. Moreover, scholars much more familiar with contemporary primary sources assure me they have not either. At a minimum, this must be taken to indicate capital punishment by stoning was not routinely practiced.
(I choose not to press this first point unreasonably, because it is risky to argue from silence. That none are recorded does not necessarily mean there was none. It is just that, as a matter of fact, there are no references.)
Does the Bible, then, not mean what it says? If it says a man shall be stoned and he is not stoned, does this not raise a question about the reliability of the Bible? Well, there is at least one law in every state that has never been punished, i.e., suicide. A number of laws are confidently enacted not because they are practical to enforce but to make a moral point.
More important and finally conclusive is the very point I attempted to make about taking the entire Bible into consideration before reaching a conclusion on any one matter.
I think of a recent biography of a man who as a drug addict robbed, cheated, and assaulted many people. Then he reformed and not only ceased such behavior but has become an active campaigner against drug addiction, helping thousands of others to overcome addiction. Because the early chapters of this biography narrate his early robberies, cheating and assaulting people, we cannot say — and no one ever would — that this book teaches robbery, cheating and assault. One reads the entire book and then accepts its final message.
This is precisely my point—and the point my friend demonstrated for us. Because the early chapters of the Old Testament stipulate stoning does not mean the final teaching of the Bible is stoning. This early harsh treatment is soon put into perspective by the preaching of the later prophets and transformed in the teaching of Jesus and the writing of the apostles. Many times Jesus told the people: “You have heard it said…., but I say unto you.”
Yet another perspective on the early laws of the Old Testament is to compare civic life in Israel to that of its neighbors. Moses and other leaders of Israel were determined, even by harsh measures, to protect their people from the kind of lives around them. However harsh were early, primitive laws in Israel, most of the other nations had no laws.
The whole point of the New Testament is that the gospel is the fulfillment (maturing) of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was rather much confined to the letter of the law, whereas the New Testament focuses on the spirit of the law. What the Old Testament failed to accomplish by its law, the New Testament accomplishes by love and grace.
Even this not is to say the Old Testament is wrong. The more orthodox Jewish people carefully keep the Law as best they can, but they and the others who take the Hebrew Bible seriously focus strongly on the moral preaching of the prophets.
As I said, we don’t take the Bible until we take the (full) Bible.