Recently, I came upon a blog post by Scot McKnight at Christianity Today. The piece is titled: When the Bible Ain’t PrettyI was excited because the post pretty perfectly illustrates why I think Lay Readers should put meaning aside when they read scripture aloud. Sounds strange. But it’s true.

First, it’s always great when anyone is willing to acknowledge that many passages in the Bible are not pretty, and that those parts that are not pretty should not be avoided or ignored. In fact, I think the difficult passages are often the most necessary.

The challenges of Deuteronomy

Scot McKnight’s post addresses how we, as Christians, can begin to come to terms with difficult content in the Bible. The passage his post considers is from Deuteronomy. It instructs victorious men in war, who desire beautiful women they have taken captive, to follow strict procedures. Below is the KJV version:

When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,

And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;

Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;

And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her. (KJV)

The blog post does a good job of enumerating all the problems we have today with taking the directives of this passage at face value. I encourage you to read it.

I think that we want to take passages like these at face value, because wandering in our own wilderness, we hunger for law: laws that restrain us and protect us. We want to believe that we are receiving divine guidance. But we now have trouble reconciling this instruction to modern sensibilities. Would we dare to give instruction like this to our own soldiers in the field?  What similar instruction would we offer today to our women in uniform?

 How are we to interpret this?

When we read passages solely for meaning, we’re tempted to accommodate that which we find uncomfortable and even reprehensible in any of a number of ways. The most obvious is to simply turn away and avoid them. But when forced to confront them, we attempt to mitigate the discomfort they cause us by explaining them away, by making them less meaningful.

 Render the language more anodyne

We begin to do this with a softening of the language we choose to recount upsetting events and “instruction.” Later translations of this passage from Deuteronomy (that came after the KJV,) substitute the words “attracted to her” for “has a desire unto her.” Desire is physical. Desire is clear, powerful and troubling. “Attracted to” is passive, potentially more intellectual (what qualities were you attracted to?) and less physically threatening. But the passage makes plain that it is her beauty that stirs desire, not her intelligence, wit or warm and loving personality.

Later translations substitute “you may marry her” for you shall go in unto to her and be her husband. To marry is to enter into a contract and covenant with another person of equal worth. Go in unto her and be her husband begins to sound like assault.

When you “have no delight in her” is to say when you tire of her, you shall let her go. More modern translations substitute ‘If she no longer pleases you,” as if the fault is all found in her.

We can always choose different words to lessen the stark brutality of what here is essentially the raw exercise of power and domination over the helpless.

 Contextualize

We most often attempt to contextualize difficult readings by explaining that things were different then. That’s the way things were back then. As if, well that’s O.K. then.

But it’s not as if this behavior has only now come to be understood as brutal. This was always brutal. To say, that’s the way things were then does not make it less brutal or more acceptable to Jesus. It was and is still brutal and remains unacceptable to Jesus.

 Rationalize

The blog post offers a solution to the difficulties posed by this reading in the idea of “redemptive movement.” This is the idea that things are improving. They’re not as bad as they were. This reading represents a movement away from the total mayhem and violence of the battlefield to a kind of law and order and more moderate behavior. It’s suggested that we may find redemption in that. We have even come some distance further as a society since then. We may not be all the way where we need to be, but there is hope.

The first difficulty we face as readers is that none of these ideas can be communicated in a reading. All three just leave us with a lot of explaining to do. As readers, we do not need to concern ourselves with any of it. As readers it’s our opportunity, obligation and privilege to reveal the human experience captured in the reading. That’s our role. Our calling. As always that is cold comfort for the victims.

When read aloud, what this passage makes clear is that part of the human experience is the intentional masking of many human sensations, emotions, and behaviors that are not pretty. In this passage, we are asked to recognize many human characteristics we would deny.

Triumphalism and arrogance

Victors in battle claim the rights not only to all property and the rewriting of history but to morality and the law. There is a self-satisfied, self-justified and entirely self-serving arrogance to these instructions and the voice that offers them.

Self-righteousness

To cloak the brutality of a one-sided, non covenant relationship in the language of morality and “law” is ultimately self-righteous. These strictures are intended to exonerate, justify and even exalt the baser instincts and behavior of powerful men. These instructions are not oriented to God. They’re entirely oriented toward the satisfaction of the self and its physical desire.

The first thing you hear when reading this passage aloud is that there is only one voice. It’s not the voice of God. It’s not the voice of Jesus. Maybe it’s the voice of Mosses, or Aaron. But it’s undeniably human and male. And it’s only a single voice. Where is her voice? Where is her voice in all of this?

This is the point. While it’s impossible to convey the nuance of word choices, historical context and rationalize-as-we-go, we can more easily convey the attitude, emotion and tone of voice in a reading.

Read for experience not meaning

Rather than less relevant today, this passage has never been more relevant.

Even in the triumphs of war, politics or business, humans will sadly continue to be all too human. It’s our role as readers to hold up the mirror to our nature.

Reading for experience requires no explaining, positioning, or justification. Reading for experience requires a clear eye, the courage to confront that which is not pretty, an unwavering voice, and the conviction that only through our faith in Jesus — not in the performance of any antique process or procedure — can we overcome our own failings and ultimately triumph.

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