Why would God give how-to instructions for things He didn’t want people to do?

polkadots

Q. I read your recent posts on slavery.  I appreciate how thorough they were, but I just can’t understand how God would give special instructions on how to buy and treat slaves if He really didn’t want the Israelites to own them.  He brought them up from Egypt and He could have just said, “Don’t do this to others.”

I think the analogy to divorce that I drew in my earlier post helps answer your question.  The Pharisees asked Jesus why the law of Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates of divorce.  Why give special how-to instructions if people weren’t supposed to get divorced at all?  Jesus explained that Moses hadn’t commanded this, he had permitted this, because of men’s hardness of heart. “But from the beginning,” he insisted, “it was not so.”

I think Jesus himself shows us by this teaching that the Bible is not “flat.”  That is, not every statement in the Bible equally expresses God’s intentions for human life.  The degree to which individual biblical statements should determine our conduct today varies. We need to assign them different weight, like the different sizes and shades of the dots in the design above (from Zazzle).

Some statements in Scripture express God’s highest and best intentions for us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But other statements are concessions to the way we insist on living: “Your male and female slaves” (if you have any) “are to come from the nations around you.”

So very careful discernment among statements is required.  Jesus sets an example for us of distinguishing between things that are positively commanded and things that are merely permitted.  He also provides the basis for making this distinction by teaching us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor.  Everything else needs to be measured by these positive expressions of God’s highest intentions.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful and I appreciate your concerns about this difficult issue.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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