Photograph by Ahmed Abu Hameeda via Unsplash

The Bible says

Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird

March 19, 2024

There is a joke among Westerners who work in the Holy Land that says there are three jobs God should never have: hairstylist, fashion designer, or real estate broker.

Now, there are a host of ways we can approach how religious folks and atheists alike use this idea of God as a real estate agent. Zionists (Jewish and Christian alike), who want to take the land of Palestine for the state of Israel, will inevitably point to the Torah or the Bible and say: “See, God gave this land to us (or God gave this land to the Jewish people). It says so right there in Genesis.” And while we could talk about modern nation states, colonialism, human rights, or democracy, what I’d like us to think about is the way we, as people of faith, use or relate to our scripture, our holy texts.

Many Christians have a pretty good understanding of how the Bible has been used as a weapon. We know that slavery was condoned and promoted because “the Bible says.” We know that Native Americans, Africans, and First Nations people of Australia have been decimated because “the Bible says.” We understand that women are repressed because “the Bible says,” and LGBTQIA folks are outcast because “the Bible says.” In 1948, Palestinians were made refugees because “the Bible says” and today we see the slaughter and continued dispossession in Gaza and the West Bank because “the Bible says.”

“The Bible says a lot of things, ya know,” says actor Jack Black starring as Jesus in a short funny video called Proposition 8: The Musical. “Jesus, doesn’t the Bible say that gay people are an abomination?” asks a buttoned-up churchgoer. “Yes, but it says the same thing about this shrimp cocktail.” “What else does the Bible say, Jesus?” a young hippie type asks. “The Bible says a lot of interesting things…like you can stone your wife and sell your daughter into slavery,” sings “Jesus.” “We ignore those verses Jesus!” answers the buttoned-up man. “Well then it seems to me you pick and choose!” concludes “Jesus.”

We just go with the parts we like. So what happens when I like the part about baby Jesus and you like the part about killing all the Amalekites? Is it just personal preference? All of this, of course, can cause us to have a love/hate relationship with the Bible. Or even more likely for the progressives…we just ignore it altogether. But this can be a problem when someone uses the Bible to justify genocide and we don’t have an effective way to respond, because we’ve not spent much time thinking about why we understand Scripture the way we do. I mean, why do we think “slaves, obey your masters” or “women should be silent in church” or some of those other passages used to beat people up are not applicable today?

What is our interpretive framework? When, as Mitri Raheb tells in his book “Decolonizing Palestine,” the Israeli representative to the UN holds up a Hebrew Bible and declares, “This holy book, the Bible, contains 3000 years of history of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. No one, no one can change this history,” as the explanation for denying human rights to Palestinians, what then are we to say?[i]

Those of us outside the fundamentalist world reject a literal reading of the Bible. We acknowledge that these texts were written over thousands of years and in many different contexts. Some are mythic, some are historical, some are poetry. Some are morality tales and warnings, some are lectures, some letters. We can still say all are inspired, but less like God dictated word for word and more like the way any human being can be inspired to speak or write God’s story today, as we understand it. I believe, as a Christian, the way we must read Scripture has to always be through the lens of Jesus and his message of love. So, first and foremost we must give weight to the teachings and life of Jesus. Secondly, any other passages must be subject to that and to the spirit of that compassionate God that Jesus showed us. It is a given that Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers” take precedence over “There is a time for war.” This is what Palestinian priest Naim Ateek calls “the hermeneutical key.” He says, “we can no longer say simply that the Bible is the word of God. We can no longer make such a blanket statement. God can still speak to us through some biblical texts, but Jesus Christ must be the determining hermeneutic.”[ii] “It is important to remember,” he continues, “that theologically speaking the authentic word of God is Jesus Christ and not the Bible. It is the Word made flesh.”[iii]

How we interpret and understand the Bible has profound implications for each of us personally and for our world, collectively. One only needs to know a bit of history to realize this truth.

What does it mean then, when the very Word of God, Jesus himself, reinterpreted scriptures when he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said…but I say to you….”

“You have heard it said: don’t murder, but I say, don’t be angry and insulting.”

“You have heard it said: don’t commit adultery, but I say, don’t look at another person only as an object.”

“You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say, love your enemies.”

And remember when Jesus challenged the popular scriptural interpretations of working on the Sabbath, fasting, judgment, who God had blessed, and most importantly, who was included in the kin-dom of God.

Jesus taught us to read Scripture in a new way.

Christianity itself is built on the reinterpretation of Scripture in light of new revelation, new experiences of God in the world. Jesus himself began a long line of those who follow him in not taking the scripture literally, but seriously. (By the way, I am not here trying to say that only Christians reinterpret Scripture – in fact it is a very prominent Jewish tradition. Neither am I trying to say that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Religious supremacy is not OK, be it Jewish, or Christian, or anything else). I am, however, talking about our own Christian understanding and use of the Bible. Scripture does contain words of life that point us to God. But we need to learn how to read and understand it and be consistent in our understanding. That said, here’s the thing:

When conservative Christian Zionists start talking about how God gave the land of Canaan to the Jewish people and them alone, I understand how they are taking that text literally and applying it (without any rational thought) to the current situation in Palestine. What I don’t understand is when liberals, even progressives, who are clear that God is not for slavery or against women’s rights or hating gays and lesbians, still somehow (and maybe unconsciously) subscribe to the idea that God is a “real estate broker,” i.e. God gave the land to the Jewish people.

People who are horrified and outraged (as they should be) at the cruel abuse of non-binary teen Nex Benedict look at Palestinian teenagers murdered simply for living in Gaza and don’t bat an eye or even worse, say it had to happen because “they are terrorists.” Suddenly folks who seem to live in the modern world, want Palestine to look like the map in the back of their Bibles. For most Christians that’s about where any knowledge of the Middle East ends. Michael Prior in “The Bible and Colonialism” says, “The view that the Bible provides the title deed for the establishment of the modern state of Israel and for its policies since 1948 is so pervasive, not only in both Christian Zionist and Jewish Zionist circles but even within mainstream Christian theology and university Biblical studies, that the very attempt to discuss the issue is sure to encounter opposition.”[iv]

As faithful followers of Jesus, we need to stand up to those who use the Bible to do injustice in the world.

But maybe it’s not biblical, one could argue. Maybe it seems complicated because of guilt about the Holocaust. As Christians, we should have guilt about the Holocaust. Especially, we, Western Christians, who were the ones who perpetrated and allowed it to happen because of antisemitism. And of course, we don’t want to seem antisemitic yet again, so it’s easier to cover our eyes or stay silent. Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis calls this “the ecumenical deal.”’ Christians in their post-Holocaust guilt look the other way while Israel does whatever it wants.

But honestly, be it Biblical confusion or the ecumenical deal, the effect is the same. Palestinians continue to be dispossessed and killed as if their lives don’t matter, or somehow matter less to God.

In recent days I’ve watched Israeli soldiers take selfies in front of destroyed Palestinian neighborhoods. I’ve heard my senators say they want a ceasefire, but vote for more and more weapons to be sent to Israel. I’ve seen clips of Jewish Zionists—children and adults—mocking Palestinian people. And I’ve listened to Christian pastors who say that Israel can do no wrong because they are God’s chosen. Worst of all was the video of Israelis who are camping at the border of Gaza to block humanitarian aid. While men, women and children starve, these ‘activists’ held a party with a bouncy house to celebrate that no food was entering besieged Gaza.

What difference does it make, asks Jesus, if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?

How we interpret and understand the Bible has profound implications for each of us personally and for our world, collectively. One only needs to know a bit of history to realize this truth. Scripture has been used to condone and perpetuate evil even as it has provided the counterpoint of love and justice. We are called to bring a faithful hermeneutic to our texts with Jesus at the center. Only then will we be able to faithfully respond to those who use our holy book to bolster oppression and hatred.

These days it is hard to find the folks who will use the Bible to say slavery is ok. And yet, even today we might get called radicals for saying women can be pastors. Those who welcome and affirm LGBTQIA siblings might be labeled heretics. It’s certainly true that standing up for the humanity of Palestinians will likely involve an accusation of antisemitism. These folks who point fingers justify their positions with passages from the Bible in the same way as their predecessors supported slavery and slaughter. As faithful followers of Jesus, we need to stand up to those who use the Bible to do injustice in the world. We must speak out, because the living Word of God affirms in us that all are made in God’s image and deserve to live in freedom and safety. We need to let go of our fear in doing what is right, not because there won’t be repercussions, but because we heed the words of Jesus: Let whoever wants to follow me take up their cross.

Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird is the pastor of The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Raheb, Mitri. Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, The People, The Bible. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2023.

[ii] Ateek, Naim Stifan. A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Prior, Michael. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, p. 45.

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