Basics of Biblical Interpretation
First, the Bible is not a single book. It did not land with a thump one evening on St Peter’s doorstep, complete with leather zipper cover and thumb-tabs. It is a collection of books written in different languages and different cultures over a period of 3,000 years. It includes a variety of types of literature; history, folk tales, fables, proverbs, law and poetry. Some of these work quite differently from the way the same kind of literature works now. For example, Hebrew poetry is not recognised by rhyme or rhythm as is most English poetry, but by parallelism; the repetition or development of an idea in succeeding lines. All of these things must be considered when trying to decide on the meaning and application of a verse of Scripture. Some kinds of literature in the Bible, apocalyptic, for example, are not forms we are familiar with at all, and with those, particular care must be taken not to impose meaning by the application of rules of interpretation which do not apply.
Second, any passage must interpreted in the context of its time and culture. For example, Deuteronomy 22:29 commands that a rapist must marry his victim and is not allowed to divorce her for as long as he lives. Our reaction to this is likely to be “What the flaming heck?” or words to that effect. But to understand this one does not even have to go back to Mesopotamia in 3,000BC. In most Middle-eastern countries now, a woman who complains she has been raped is likely to find that she is the one who is beaten, imprisoned and despised by her community, or killed by her own family for bringing shame upon them. 5,000 years ago, being raped meant a woman was defiled and unlikely to find a husband. Since it was unusual for women to work outside the home or to own property, this meant she could choose between life as a beggar or as a prostitute. Abject poverty or ridicule and shame. The law in Deuteronomy meant this could not happen. If a man raped a woman, he was responsible for her welfare from that day on. He could not divorce her, as he could other wives. As long as she lived, he was required to care for her. Would that work now? Of course not. But then, it was a creative and humane solution.
Third, for Christians, the meaning of all Scripture is found in Jesus. This principle cannot be overstated. All Christian biblical interpretation must be Christocentric. If it isn’t, then it is missing the point. Obviously Jews see this somewhat differently! This does not mean we are in a desert trying to work out what things mean by ourselves. Clear guidance can be found in the writings of the early church. That context; of the sermons, letters and other writings of the early Church fathers, provides a vital foundation to our reading and application of Scripture. For example, Christians have never believed the Mosaic law applied to them as law. Sometimes useful for guidance and discussion, yes. Binding as law, no.
Fourth, the fact that something is recorded in the Bible, whether as law or history, does not mean God thinks it’s a great idea. The history of David’s adultery with Bathsheeba and subsequent murder of her husband are a cautionary tale, not something to be emulated. Most of the Book of Judges is the same. It is a history of a time when “men did what was right in their own eyes” (pretty much like now). It was one messy disaster after another. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean God is saying it is a good thing.
This leads to the final point. There is a huge difference between description and prescription. There is a massive difference between Biblical descriptions of war, almost always portrayed as a result of human greed and sinfulness, and which portray the struggle of a desert people to come to an understanding of God which was utterly different from that of the cultures around them; and prescription – calls to violence which are binding upon the people of God in every place and for all time. Descriptions of violence can found in the Old Testament in plenty. Prescriptions for violence in perpetuity, never.
This means it is not just ludicrous, but ignorant in the extreme, to pick laws or records of violence out of the Old Testament and use these an argument that all religions are the same.
For Christians, Jesus is the perfect example of how to act. And that’s great. Jesus was honest, caring, respectful, courageous, self-sacrificing. For Muslims, Muhammad is the perfect example of conduct. Not so great. Muhammad was a serial rapist and murderer, a bandit, a torturer and a paedophile (a fifty-three year old man who rapes a nine year old girl is definitely a paedophile). Since he is the perfect example of conduct, nothing he did can be considered wrong, or made illegal in a Muslim country.
The Sharia law, which is based on the Quran and the Hadith (stories of the acts and sayings of Muhammad) are considered Allah’s perfect law for all people for all time. Every Muslim is required to consider him or her self subject to that law regardless of the laws of the country in which they may be living (hence the demands for Sharia courts) and to work for the imposition of Sharia law on the entire population. This is prescriptive, not descriptive. There can be no change or alteration in Sharia. Its outcome in practical and political terms is massively different. To give just one example, Muslims are less than one third of the world’s population, but make up more than two-thirds of its refugees. People are literally dying to get out of Islamic countries. Does these mean we condemn all Muslims? Absolutely not. They are the primary victims of Sharia and of violence by other Muslims. Is this a philosophy we would like to be influential here? Heck no.