Biblical Interpretation: Can We Get It Right?

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 1

By Reta Halteman Finger

Anyone who keeps up with the national news knows about Kim Davis. She’s the Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court had ruled they were valid and constitutional.

Davis belongs to the Apostolic Church, a branch of the Pentecostal movement which views the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God. The September 1 issue of the Washington Post quoted her public statement, part of which reads,

I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. 

At the same time, other American Christians were cheering the Supreme Court’s decision as one that Jesus himself would surely have approved of, since he always accepted the marginalized and never addressed the issue of same-sex relationships. My own Mennonite denomination is presently being torn apart by this issue as congregations decide to stay or leave Mennonite Church USA.

Herman—who?

This new series of lessons in Reta’s Reflections will not be a book study, as earlier studies have been. Rather, it will deal with the broader issue of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation as it relates to how we understand our Scriptures. The question of how we interpret authoritative texts becomes acute when current social, economic, or political issues divide believers who look to these texts for answers.

We could name any number of other issues on which Christians have disagreed:

Believers’ baptism vs. infant baptism
Pacifism vs. “just war” vs. conventional war
Chattel slavery
Women’s rights and women’s ordination
Wealth, poverty, and the “prosperity gospel”
Market capitalism vs. socialism or redistribution of wealth
Sexual orientation and practice
Relationship of church and state
Science and the Bible
“Pro-life” vs. a woman’s right to choose

Many of these debates are not directly related to biblical authority because most people either don’t care about biblical authority or mistakenly assume that their traditional understandings come directly from the Bible. In this study, however, I will primarily interact with the Bible itself and with persons who do care and who want to better understand texts in their proper contexts. One of my concerns is to find ways to dialogue respectfully with believers who may have different interpretations of biblical texts. I welcome responses, challenges, and further wisdom!

Getting Started with a Current News Item

For now, let’s look at Kim Davis’s testimony about why her conscience will not let her issue marriage licenses for gay or lesbian couples. Davis sees marriage between a man and a woman as “God’s definition” of marriage and a “central teaching of Scripture” coming from Jesus himself. So for her, it would mean going to hell if she signed a same-sex marriage license.

I see four avenues for exploration in Davis’s statement. First, we could peruse the Old Testament to find that quite often the pattern for marriage was not “one man and one woman,” but “one man and one, two, or more women.” Although the Old Testament does not approve of Israelite kings marrying foreign women, the Genesis author has no problem with Jacob marrying two sisters and then having children with their (presumably enslaved) handmaids.

Second, Davis’s mention of Jesus must refer to parallel texts in Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-10. Here Pharisees question Jesus about the lawfulness of a man’s divorcing his wife and hear Jesus, in response, referring to Genesis 2:24 about male and female becoming one flesh. But although Jesus was emphatically against divorce, he does not threaten the Pharisees with hell.

Third, knowing the background of these same texts helps us understand why Jesus spoke against divorce and why it is unrelated to same-sex marriage. Although Moses allowed divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Jesus says it was “because of your hardness of heart” (Mt 19:5). Jesus is attacking divorce on the grounds that it was a cruel, sexist practice that was only legal for men. For almost any reason, a husband could thrust his wife out of his house with nothing; even their children were his to keep. (See “Liberating the Chained: Jesus’ Attitude toward Divorce,” by Jeanette Blonigen Clancy [Daughters of Sarah, Jan/Feb 1989], 10-13. In the American Theological Library Association Database. Limited access.)

Fourth, Jesus’s reference to Genesis 2:24 about a male-female relationship says nothing about same-sex marriage because such a thing did not exist either “in the beginning” or in Jesus’s day. Marriages were arranged for reasons of economics and social class, and for procreation and thus passing on the male lineage. Male-on-male sex was forbidden in the Mosaic law for reasons I will discuss later, but even if some Jewish men did practice it surreptitiously, they would have had legitimate wives for the reasons just mentioned.

Thus, although Kim Davis apparently follows her church’s teaching, even this superficial analysis shows her biblical case to be thin indeed. In the future, we’ll dig deeper into some of these texts and their cultural settings.

The next lesson will discuss biblical inspiration and trace the history of its range of meanings.

Questions for discussion or reflection

1. What areas of disagreement on religious or biblical topics have affected your life? Were some issues personally hurtful?

2. What would you add to or subtract from the above four challenges to Kim Davis’s argument?

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Looking forward to this series.

    FWIIW, on what Jesus meant in Matt 19, etc.I highly recommend David Instone-Brewer’s masterwork “Divorce and Remarriage: The Social and Literary Context”. David is a British Baptist and works at Tyndale House as a Second Jewish temple scholar, so he knows his stuff.

  2. I like the idea of respectful dialogue between people with different interpretations of scripture. I can identify with Kim Davis in her attempt to take her faith seriously. As a teacher in public school classrooms I have sometimes come upon the awkward situation of needing to pledge allegiance to the US flag. I have never done it, although I have stood respectfully and quietly recited my own pledge: to Jesus Christ and to the Kingdom for which he stands…. one community indivisible with liberty and justice for all!
    Hermeneutics are helpful, and I like your 4 points. Still, I know how emotional rather than rational we are on matters of conscience. If I were to dialogue with Kim Davis, I’d probably start with what we have in common. This is hard, especially these days. I think Pope Francis has the right approach even though he got a lot of criticism. He, if anyone, might lead her through the above scriptures toward a more open stance to same sex marriage.

  3. Issue of women’s leadership: Studying the writings of Biblical Feminists, including Virginia Mollenkott, Letha Scanzoni, and Nancy Hardesty, made me a feminist. To pursue ordination I had to leave my church of 25 years and go to a different denomination. I was not able to study Hebrew at a local religious college because it was considered a seminary class and women were not admitted to seminary!
    Issue of LGBTIAQ equality: I was asked to leave a church I was pastoring over this one. I wound up in MCC after this event. We’ve acquired some of our best pastors this way!

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