Elections are unbiblical. That’s all right because not everything biblical is godly. Too often I hear the adjective “biblical” used uncritically as a synonym for good, right, and the will of God. The desire to affirm what is biblical comes from a good place, love of the text and love of the One who inspired it, desire to walk with God and please God. But you don’t have to go very far into the text to discover that what is biblical includes the very worst of humanity interspersed with occasional good faith attempts at faithfulness, and sometimes some pretty horrible theology.
The bible is, well, complicated. Literal readings of the scriptures can justify slavery, rape, genocide, and other atrocities. It is not a misreading to say the text considers the wealth of the patriarchs, measured in part in enslaved human beings as chattel as the gift and blessing of God. It is not a misinterpretation to say Israelite soldiers were granted permission to take women captive after the defeat of their people and rape them into to bearing children for them. The command to exterminate peoples, cities and towns, killing all within, including babies at the breast, is the literal reading of the text in many cases, those horrific verses placed on the lips of God and carried out by heroes of the faith. Again I say, everything biblical is not godly, no more than everything legal is ethical. Slavery, segregation and discrimination against people of color and women, even if they had white privilege, was legal. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk is still legal. Legal doesn’t mean ethical or moral and biblical doesn’t mean godly.
The bible’s many difficult texts can make it hard for folk to engage it deeply. Living with complexity and tension is uncomfortable. And there is a certain comfort in just focusing on the love and promises of God. For these and other reasons many churches turn to a lectionary that constructs an alternate, somewhat sanitized, version of the bible. As a result the breadth and depth of the biblical text is largely unplumbed.
When hard texts do pop up in the lectionary, sometimes excuses are made for the text or God—that’s just the way it was back then, or silence is kept, and truths remained untold. A preacher might mention Sarah and Abraham’s shared father but few tell the truth their relationship was incestuous. Some may talk about the use of slaves as surrogates to bear children for their masters but few will call it rape. There is a reluctance to confront, name and, own the ugliness of our scriptures because of what that might mean about our God. What are we to do when we encounter a god in the text who is not the God of our faith? Is the god of the text the god of your faith? Always and forever, in every text? Are you sure you know what is in your bible? Or is there a God beyond the text who transcends the text even when the text bears a faithful resemblance to her?
The Iron Age may have spawned the great stories of our faith but some of us are not so sure we want to replicate that world and its values in our world. Just how much of that Iron Age theology is still valid for us? A God who handcrafts creation? I want to hold on to that, but not try to make it a how-to text or a lab report. A God who saves and delivers? Yes. A God who takes 400 hundred years to deliver? Not my preference, I’d like justice and liberation now but I’m too old to believe in fairy tales and I know sometimes it takes that long, just ask my people.
What about the Israelites’ Iron Age ethics and constructions of gender and sexuality? What do we do with those? Do we pretend not to know or remain willfully ignorant that the Israelite people needed people capable of producing children to produce as many as possible to meet their food production, labor and military needs in the face high infant, child and maternal mortality, and wave after wave of defeat and conquest, and those needs have direct bearing on the texts that regulate sexuality? We must take seriously our own context and how different it is from theirs. But it can be hard to figure out just how we’re supposed to use the bible in our contemporary lives when deeper engagement with the sacred text reveals how great is the gulf between the world of the scriptures and our own. Yet how we relate to the bible has direct implications for how we relate to God.
Our lessons offer us two different perspectives on scripture: Job reflects on the power of the written word. Job thinks that if he just writes, actually engraves his words, they will last forever:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
In the world that produced the scriptures, the written word was powerful. Most people were not literate and those who were may not have been able to do more than recognize enough words to engage in trade and read and write their names with few exceptions. Writing was the province of the elite; monarchs and religious officials used writing to awe their people. There is power in the written word. That power endures today.
The written word serves a similar purpose within the scriptures. God calls upon Moses repeatedly to write what he hears that he might not only teach it to the Israelites in song but they would also pass it down through the generations. And God uses the written word to form the backbone of the community she crafts from slaves and refugees, the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
The questioner in the gospel (Luke 20:27-38) presents a different aspect of scripture, that it needs to be interpreted. The questioner knows what the Torah teaches and wants to know how to interpret and apply it. The questioner knows that world is not limited to the words on the page, even when the words, the page and the One who inspired them are holy. The questioner knows the real world is more complex than our sacred texts. It is not always so simple a thing to directly apply the scriptures to our lives even when it seems like they would be directly applicable.
To read is to interpret. And to read in another language is to lose something unrecoverable. The scriptures in English are not entirely the same as they are in Hebrew and Greek. They are good enough, but that might not always be good enough. When we read in English we are reading a text that has already been interpreted to and for us to some unknown degree. Then we read and interpret through who we are, what we have experienced, and what we know. What we don’t know also shapes our interpretation, closing off possibilities we don’t know we don’t know exist. It has always been this way, but previous generations of scholars, translators and interpreters presumed the cultural baggage they brought to the text was normative and God-ordained unlike the values of those they pushed to the margins. Who we are matters when we read.
We are, I suggest, in that uncomfortable space between the word and its interpretation, and we can’t diminish the space between them by wishing it away. The church has struggled in that place from the beginning, wrestling with the spoken and written word as did God’s people before us, and we bear the addition burden of being a largely Gentile church staking a claim on Jewish scripture. Our relationship with the scriptures is complicated.
Which brings me back to my original observation. Elections are unbiblical. Should we even be voting?—Not we black folk, we paid for our right to vote in blood, with lynchings, burnings, rapes and castrations. Not we womenfolk, that ship has sailed, though the ship with the black women on it was held back by white suffragettes. Should we be voting? Because there’s nothing about elections in the bible.
If you think Samuel was outraged when the people said we want another king because everyone else has one—you do know that Saul wasn’t the first king in Israel and Avimelek (Abimelech) ruled for three years in the book of Judges?—If you think Samuel was fit to be tied when presented with a monarchal mutiny, how do think he would have responded when the people came and said, “We want to vote. We want leaders we can get rid of every two or four years if they don’t do what we want.” That’s not biblical. But the proof is all around us that we know we are not constrained by the constraints of scripture: we don’t observe the Sabbath, Sunday is not the Sabbath, we don’t stone. We deposed an anointed king and set up a government that would not be beholden to any religion, not even biblical religion. We know that we are not limited to what is biblical even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.
We are standing at a precipitous intersection in the life of our country and we’ve got a treasured resource of sacred texts passed down through the generations for millennia, through which our ancestors and we ourselves have heard and encountered God. What do we do with it between now and Tuesday? Do we open it to a random page or swipe on our iPads and see what word our fingers land on try to figure out if that word has more to do with one person than another on our ballots? Or do we honestly acknowledge we bring more than biblical values with us into the voting booth?
We are like the questioner in the gospel. We’ve heard the sacred story and tried to make sense of it in our world and we are still left with questions. And the responses we get, should we be so fortunate to have a direct, clear word from God in our wrestling, provoke more questions than answers. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on what it means to interpret the text faithfully in our context, we realize it’s not as simple as it seems.
Let me offer a couple of interpretive principles from my Episcopal context: Taking the scriptures seriously does not mean taking them literally in every case. But every time we add one more passage to the list of texts we’re not taking literally, some of us feel a twinge of guilt because we’ve been conditioned—but only in the past fifty years or so—to take the texts, all of them, literally as if they have no nuance, rhetoric, or genre.
We may know in our guts that there are some things in the text that are just not binding on us or authoritative for us but we don’t always know how to say that. We Episcopalians also say: The word of God is in the bible but everything in the bible isn’t the word of God. We take seriously that the scriptures are human and divine just as Jesus is human and divine. The scriptures cannot be more divine than Jesus. Any claim that elevates them above him is idolatrous. There’s a special name for this kind of idolatry, bibliolatry.
So much of our public discourse about the bible is slogans and electioneering: The Bible Is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The bible is our owner’s and operator’s manual. That’s nice. But what do we do with it? How does that help us know how to read, understand, interpret and apply it? If we have the words, there can be no misunderstanding, right? The text says what it means and means what it says, right? One thing I’ve learned about reading scripture is that interpretive rules that make good t-shirt logos are poor exegetical guides.
That is why the questioner in the gospel says I have the words, I’ve read them but I don’t how to apply them. If we are to meet a living God in a living text we must be prepared to be stretched in our growth, and sometimes that hurts. When we wrestle with God and the text and God in the text, God wrestles with us, not intentionally oppositionally but occasionally we get dislocated when we text-wrestle and God-grapple. It hurts sometimes to relinquish a cherished belief or determine a doctrinal or biblical claim doesn’t have a solid foundation. It can be a bruising process, but it leaves us blessed.
In our wrestling with the text and its god we have no better examples than Job and the questioner in our gospel lesson. Job proclaims the power of the written word its enduring testimony. Job teaches us that we can argue with God, shout into the whirlwind, with our grief, anger, and our questions even when that defies the theological norms of the larger community. Job teaches us that God is with us in our shouting and questioning, and after the storm passes by, God is still with us.
And our questioner in the Gospel teaches us to bring our questions to Jesus. He may tell us we’ve got the whole thing wrong and there are dimensions to the greater story beyond our texts and our comprehension, but he will hear our questions. And he will guide us to the path that leads to life no death can extinguish.
Elections may not be biblical but questioning God and the text is. Bring your questions and be prepared to wrestle and wrangle your own answers in the company and embrace of God. Then on Tuesday as on every other day, our choices are not limited to or by the limitations of the biblical text. Amen.