Remember Hansel and Gretel? They ate the gingerbread house and got captured by a witch who wanted to bake them in the oven. Would the readers of that text expect that the Brothers Grimm wanted them to kill all witches by baking them? If I told you a story about a rapist who got away, does that mean I approve of rapists? Does the author of World War Z think that’s the way the world should be, overrun with zombies?
The answer to all these questions is no. Now, what if these stories were a part of a religious text; would the answer change? No. Yet, there are some people who say that it would. These people check their brains at the door and seek to obey whatever the text says. But, if you keep your brains with you as you read, you realize we all bring some things to the text with us, such as knowledge of how to be a good human. Although some are better at that than others. Just because something is a religious text doesn’t relieve us if the responsibility of doing the hard work of identifying what is good and bad in the story.
The Old Testament should be approached in the same way. The Bible contains a story of a man who killed his girlfriend, shopped her in twelve pieces, and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel. Did the author approve of this? Solomon had 700 wives. Is that OK? A man sacrificed his daughter to God. Should we emulate that?
The answer to all these questions is no. But, that’s because I don’t check my brains at the door. We must all do the hard thinking and decide what’s good or bad in these stories. What, if anything, applies to me? Who was it written to? Because it was written to them do I have to follow it? Why was the practice of slavery given guidelines which eventually stopped it instead of stopping it right away?
The point is that the stories in the Bible are complicated and should be allowed to challenge our thinking. Just because something is in them doesn’t mean it should be emulated. Just try to follow “an eye for an eye” and “turn the other cheek.” Both can’t be done at the same time. The former may be appropriate in certain legal circumstances and the latter is something that will cause you to be taken advantage of every time you practice it.
If the reader of the Bible is looking for principles to live his life by, he would do better to emulate the life of Jesus. He was a good human. After all, that’s what we are really trying to be. Some of the same principles can be found in Old Testament passages, but it takes more work to figure them out. Just don’t check your brains at the door.