Among Republican presidential hopefuls, several such as Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry have stressed their commitment to fundamentalist Christianity, which bases its approach to cultural issues on a literal reading of the Bible. But the Rev. Howard Bess notes that many of those ancient traditions are repugnant to modern society.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
The essential messages of the Bible are justice, peace, love, reconciliation and hope — messages that have the power to operate in every age and every culture. But the list of clashes between the Bible and modern culture is long.
For instance, the Bible reflects an absurd understanding of the structure of the universe; it shows little understanding of physical and mental illnesses; and it was and is on the wrong side of patriarchal authority, marriage, equality for women, homosexuality, slavery, and the rights of an older son.
That is because the Bible is a collection of writings by many authors who wrote in ever-changing circumstances in ancient times. Today’s Bible readers live in circumstances that could not have been imagined by the original writers.
Family, social, economic and government structures today are completely different from those of the authors of the original writings. The place of women in Bible settings is a prime example of this dilemma, since that status during early Judaism is defined in the property codes of Leviticus.
Women were property owned by men. They were bought and sold. The most famous example of this law is the story of Jacob and Laban.
Jacob was moving back to his family’s home territory east of Palestine when he arrived at a watering hole and inquired where he could find an uncle named Laban, who was Jacob’s mother’s brother.
As providence would have it, a daughter of Laban, Rachel, appeared at the watering hole with some sheep. Jacob’s first cousin was beautiful and Jacob decided that Rachel was the girl of his dreams. He wanted her as a wife.
The next step in the process was to make a deal with Uncle Laban for the purchase of Rachel. The price was seven years of work as his uncle’s slave. Jacob worked the seven years and thought that the beautiful Rachel was his.
However, Laban switched products. When Jacob woke up from his wedding night, he discovered that he had slept not with Rachel, but with an older sister named Leah. Laban calmly explained that he had no choice. By custom he could not sell off a younger daughter until after he had sold his oldest daughter.
Jacob and Uncle Laban made a new deal. Jacob would work another seven years to get the wife he wanted. He worked the seven years and got Rachel.
The deeply embedded cultural code reflected in this tale eventually became Leviticus law, following a pattern in which established social customs typically get codified into binding law.
The Bible standard of male ownership of women was still fully in force in First Century culture CE at the times of the New Testament writings. The place of a woman was determined by her ownership.
A very common misunderstanding about many of the women who became followers of Jesus is that many were prostitutes. They were, in fact, women who for some reason no longer had an owner and thus were completely vulnerable in the male-dominated society.
A woman such as Mary from Magdala is an example. She was not a “loose” woman but a victim of a cruel male-dominated society. Such women attached themselves to Jesus to escape their plight. They called Jesus “Lord,” and he gave them a new understanding of the value of their lives.
Even in modern times, the Biblical standard of male ownership of women has been difficult to overcome.
I grew up in a small Mid-western farm community where the largest and dominant religious group in the area called themselves Apostolic Christians. Among Apostolic Christians in the 1930s, a man got a wife through negotiation with a young lady’s father.
There were no dating procedures. Their wedding was a celebration of the transfer of ownership of a woman from her father to her husband. They carried on this practice because they made ancient cultural rules a part of their faith practice, seeing themselves as being faithful to Bible standards.
In today’s world, women have carved out very different roles for themselves than the roles assigned to them by the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Today’s women have made it clear they will never again submit to the cultural practices found in the Bible.
Christians have rightfully seen the necessity of translating the Bible from language to language to facilitate an understanding of the Bible messages. However, most Christians have not understood the necessity of translating the Bible messages from culture to culture.
To be effective the Christian message must be freed from the cultural shackles found in the Bible.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.