The Cultural Captivity of the Bible

Posted on April 10, 2016


While listening to my daily audio Bible reading the other day, my online reader was working his way through Deuteronomy and I perked up.

Deuteronomy was fascinating after the dry as dirt readings through Numbers and Leviticus. Those books are bogged down with detailed instructions to how to build the Ark of the Covenant and other excruciating rules on sexy subjects like one’s diet. Or how Moses periodically got ticked off at the unruly Israelites as they wandered around the desert for forty years, whining all the time.

But Deuteronomy really flashed forward to the New Testament in many ways, prophetically my friends in theology would say. Let me explain as best as I can one of the major controversies both among theologians and practitioners, not mutually exclusive categories I would hope in the main.

Is the Bible good for all times, or was it written in a time and place whose morality and ethics and accepted behaviors we no longer subscribe to?

Let me give you a few “for examples.”

Women are generally subordinated to men throughout the Bible.

Slavery still existed.

Homosexuality was a grave sin, punished often, especially in the Old Testament, by death.

And when the judgmental and some would say vindictive God of the Israelites took a dislike to some people, he ordered the Hebrews to crush, kill and destroy them all, women, children, animals and, of course, the men. To us it seems heartless and cruel. What about collateral damage so important in today’s war planners? Why kill innocent children?

Maybe a book is what we need since the above, and more, tell us a lot about the Judeo-Christian faith through the ages. But today let’s just consider one briefly today, slavery.

We abolished slavery, of course, in this country during the course of the Civil War. Slavery in fact receded and was abolished throughout most of the Western world during the nineteenth century.

The end of slavery was brought on generally by two propositions: one, it was an anachronism in the “modern” world, an inefficient source of labor, an affront to the principles of equality and freedom embodied in our Constitution for example; and, two, it was not only inhumane but also stood in the face of true Christian principles, devoted to love and equality among Christians. In fact, the most ardent abolitionists in England and this country were precisely Christians, especially the Quakers.

But slavery existed in the Bible. We don’t have space and time to cite chapters and verses, but it indisputably was part of life in the Roman Empire where Christianity was born. Google the apostle Paul and slavery if you are interested

Then I read in Deuteronomy 15: 12-15, 18 the following:

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today…’

And, for added measure, “do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.”

It’s pretty clear to me that in the above instance the Lord was definitely showing a prejudice against slavery, in favor of the free. He also reminded the Hebrews they had served the Egyptians as slaves for hundreds of years, and then the Lord set them free through the actions of Moses.

In the New Testament, Paul adjures masters to treat their slaves with kindness, and he adds that slaves should obey willingly the authority of the masters.

Slavery was, in fact, part of life. And so it was not left uncommented on in both the Old and New Testaments. It was part of the culture, hence the “cultural captivity” of the Bible.

The big question is, of course, are we bound, hand and foot so to speak, to obeying the Bible literally?

Slavery is gone, except for a few hidden corners of Africa and Asia perhaps, and yet there it is, big as life, in Scripture.

Tune in for more, because the answers to how we understand Biblical authority over time defines such elementary items as morality, truth, and justice for starters, not just for believers but for us all—secularists, atheists, universalists, and, most of all, Christians. It may even profit those who run this country politically, or want to govern it.

Published as “The Cultural Captivity of the Bible” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday April 10, 2016