Can the Bible be made to say whatever you want? If you’ve ever witnessed two Christians arguing polar opposites from the same scriptures, you might think so! The following have been claimed as Bible teaching: the earth is flat because God “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22); we are all living within Adam’s dream because the text never says that God woke Adam up again after he put him to sleep (Genesis 2:21); and everyone must have children because this is the first recorded commandment (Genesis 1:28). These three conclusions have been seriously taught by early Church Fathers, the Church of Christian Science and ancient rabbis respectively.
The flat-earthers might have a point: Isaiah used the word ‘circle’ (chug in Hebrew) which is the shape drawn by ‘a compass’ (me-chug-ah as in Isaiah 44:13) on a flat piece of paper, instead of the word kaddur, meaning a ‘sphere’ or ‘ball’, as in Isaiah 22:18. But even so, this interpretation is mistaken because it ignores the context and purpose of the text: Isaiah is glorifying God, not teaching astronomy.
The Christian Scientists make a different mistake: they argue from an insignificant silence concerning Adam – that is, they come to a conclusion based on the absence of a statement. Some silences in the Bible are significant, such as the lack of even any hint that Jesus ever sinned. But most silences are completely insignificant because they are unsurprising, such as the lack of any mention that Jesus went to the toilet or, in this case, that Adam woke up.
The ancient rabbis made a third common mistake: generalising from the particular. God told humanity in general to “Go forth and multiply”, but that doesn’t mean that every individual must seek to get married and must have at least two children, as the rabbis taught in Jesus’ day – after all, Jesus didn’t.
MARRIAGE IN GENESIS
The modern homosexuality debate has produced some new misuses of scripture when some argue that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and define marriage as “a man...united to his wife” based on Genesis 2:24. I have sympathy with the conclusions drawn from these proof texts, but these two arguments crumble at the merest push, so instead of strengthening the case, they give ammunition to detractors.
While I believe the Bible teaches in both the New and Old Testament that homosexual practice is prohibited, the wrong verses are often employed to make that case. The first couple in Genesis had to be heterosexual in order to have children and start the human race. So the fact that God partnered Adam with Eve and not Steve says nothing about God’s preferences for human sexuality. It’s also false to use the first family as a moral role model because the fact that Adam’s family did something doesn’t mean that we should. Unlike them, we don’t need to wear animal skins (which God gave them to replace the plant-based clothes they’d made), or sacrifice animals (which pleased God), or marry siblings (Genesis 3:7, 21; 4:45, 16-17). If we used Adam’s family as a guideline for human sexuality, we’d have to conclude that incest was permitted. Both heterosexuality and incest were necessary if a single family were to produce all humans, so we can’t argue that either occurred for our moral guidance.
JESUS SHOWED US HOW TO USE THE BIBLE RESPONSIBLY
Jesus showed us how to use the Bible responsibly. He quoted, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” in order to emphasise the importance of maintaining a marriage (Matthew 19:5 citing Genesis 2:24). He picked a statement about humans in general, not just about Adam and Eve, and he emphasised its central point: that couples should become one and remain united.
Jesus didn’t misuse this general text by making it apply to every individual couple. Some marriages do become broken when one partner breaks their vows, and Jesus allowed divorce in such cases. He used this text to argue that divorce shouldn’t happen; but he didn’t use it to show that divorce cannot happen when one partner does what they shouldn’t. And he didn’t misuse the text by emphasising an inconsequential detail – he didn’t forbid couples from living in a parental home because the text says they should “leave”. He didn’t misuse it either by saying the mention of “man” with “his wife” rules out homosexual partnerships. This text doesn’t address that issue, and Jesus doesn’t refer to it as if it did.
Genesis 2:24 is concerned with the strength and closeness of marriage, and not its sexual make-up. This text could have excluded homosexual marriages by (for example) following “united to his wife” with “but not to a man”. And, to consider the ridiculous for a moment, Genesis could have promoted homosexual marriages by adding “or his husband”. But it did neither. The text doesn’t say anything about this subject one way or the other so we shouldn’t use it as an argument for or against homosexual partnerships.
God clearly did indicate the normality of human males marrying females because our anatomical design indicates this. The Bible’s teaching on issues relating to homosexuality is found in Leviticus (18:22; 20:13) and the Epistles (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). But I cringe when I hear someone argue for this correct conclusion on the basis of “Adam and Steve” or “Jesus said a man can only marry a wife” because this is such a blatant misuse of the texts.
The problem with adding arguments for what the Bible teaches from texts that are irrelevant is that although they may initially strengthen our case, we end up losing it completely – when someone realises the weakness of one point, they’re liable to reject the rest.
Whenever we support our case by misusing a text, we debase the whole Bible. And sadly, when someone sees through our argument, they are likely to throw out everything else we say and perhaps even reject the Bible itself because of us. Because of this, even when our conclusion is correct, it is counterproductive and damaging to base it on irrelevant or misleading texts. If we really want to take the Bible seriously, we should take extra care not to misuse it. With Bible interpretation, as with most things, the ends don’t justify the means.