When the Bible Bothers Our Conscience

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Our last conversation about William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals certainly generated a lot of responses, particularly concerning the role of women in church leadership, which means the post accomplished its purposes of highlighting the challenges of applying the teachings of Scripture in today’s culture. Today I want to focus on Webb’s “redemptive movement hermeneutic,” specifically as it applies to those tricky passages of Scripture that leave us scratching our heads. 

I don’t think it’s possible to honestly read the Bible without bumping into a passage or two that is deeply troubling. 

When I was a kid, we sang Sunday School songs about Joshua and the Battle of Jericho that never mentioned the fact that the Israelites “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21) Nor did we discuss God’s command to King Saul that he “strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3) Today we would flatly condemn such actions as genocide. 

As a woman, I often struggle with the misogynistic elements of biblical culture. Just as offensive as the atrocities of Sodom and Gomorrah is Lot’s suggestion that the mob rape his virgin daughters. The inequality of laws concerning punishment of suspicion of adultery, the pervasiveness of polygamy, the fact that women were viewed as property, the lesser value ascribed to baby girls, and the suggestion that women are more easily deceived than men are all striking problems for modern readers…and as Christians we should not underestimate the impact they may have on unbelieving seekers.

To be fair, I’ve always been encouraged by Jesus’ treatment of women. From his female disciples, to the woman caught in adultery, to the Samaritan at the well, He broke with social convention to show compassion and respect for women time and time again. I find it both infuriating and ironic that in the Apostle Paul’s lengthy defense of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, he conveniently omits any mention of the famous female witnesses. And yet these days, apologists use their presence in all four gospel stories as evidence to support the authenticity of the resurrection accounts!

Webb deals with the troubling passages concerning slaves, women, and homosexuals by applying what he calls a redemptive movement hermeneutic to distinguish between cultural and trans-cultural  components within Scripture. The key to Webb’s approach is the idea that when one looks at the broader biblical culture (Ancient Near East, Greco-Roman) and compares it to the biblical ethic, one can detect significant progress in the direction of the so-called “ultimate ethic.” 

For example, in the passages that seem to condone the capturing of female virgins as spoils of war, one should note that that the Bible stimulates that an Israelite male must wait one month before marrying a conquered woman, and that in the case of divorce he could not sell her or treat her as a slave. Writes Webb, “compared to the horrible rape scenes that often accompanied ancient warfare…these biblical texts are clearly redemptive.” (32) 

Similarly, when one examines the treatment of slaves encouraged by the biblical writers, it is decidedly more generous than that of other cultures…although the categorization of slaves as property, the use of slaves for reproductive purposes, and leniency regarding beatings, remains troubling, or  “needing further movement,” according to Webb.  Webb believes that Scripture clearly points toward the ultimate ethic of abolishing slavery altogether. 

Using additional criteria, (which we will discuss later), Webb asserts that the redemptive movement of Scripture supports the abolition of slavery, a more egalitarian approach to women’s roles in society, and the continued condemnation of homosexual behavhior. 

I suppose one of my biggest problems with Webb’s approach is his insistence that while objections to problem passages are raised by our modern culture, they can be ultimately resolved intra-biblically, that the Bible itself provides the framework for moving toward that “ultimate ethic.” 

Webb writes, “When it comes to cultural assessment, it matters little where our culture is on any of the issues discussed in this book! Scripture, rather than contemporary culture, always needs to set the course of our critical reflection…Our modern culture must not determine the outcome of any cultural/trans-cultural analysis of Scripture.” (245-246)

I guess I’m just not convinced that simply studying biblical passages about women would convince someone to become more egalitarian. I’m not even convinced it would lead someone to conclude that slavery should be abolished. 

It seems to me that our objections to these issues, and our progress toward an “ultimate ethic,” are the result of extra-biblical change, not intra-biblical clues. While the example of Jesus and the theme of loving one’s neighbor are perhaps the best motivation for social reform, I  don’t see clear biblical mandates calling for such changes specifically. Furthermore, I’m uncertain about what dictates this “ultimate ethic” if it is not actually found in Scripture. It seems to me that something other than the Bible is at work here. Perhaps it is our conscience. Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit. 

I really appreciate Webb’s scholarship on the subject, and I think his approach has been thoughtful and accessible…but I just can’t honestly read the Bible and say to myself, “Now there’s a case for women’s rights!” I mean no disrespect by this, of course. I’m just being honest…and this has been a struggle of mine for many years.

So why do certain passages of Scripture bother us so much?  And how do you deal with the ones that bother you?  What do you think about Webb’s redemptive movement hermeneutic? What do you think about his position on homosexuality?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

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