The Table Podcast

Does the Old Testament Condone Violence?

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Gordon Johnson discuss morality, violence, and Old Testament laws, focusing on Deuteronomy 21 and the cultural context of the Torah. Note: This interview was recorded before March 2020.

Timecodes
02:51
Issues surrounding Deuteronomy 21:10-14
08:46
Importance of the culture around the Torah
12:17
Specific details about the culture of the Torah
16:37
Progressive features of Deuteronomy 21
21:53
Revolutionary ethics of Deuteronomy 21
28:25
Progressive revelation of ethics
33:30
Why doesn’t the law go beyond the culture?
36:30
What is the purpose of problematic Old Testament texts now?
37:40
How should we understand cultural progress?
Transcript
Darrell Bock

The following Table podcast is adapted from a cultural engagement chapel that was filmed earlier. The title of the chapel was “Dr. Who Meets Moses.” It’s a discussion of the question of, “Does God condone violence in the Old Testament?” And the nature of Old Testament ethics with regard to violence. Some of the illustrations involve sexual abuse of women, which is handled, rather, in terms of its principles in the chapel, and we wanted to make clear before broadcasting this that sexual abuse is a serious issue from a biblical point of view and needs to be discussed with sensitivity. Those who have been abused sometimes find this kind of conversation difficult to work through, and that’s completely understandable. Our hope is that, in focusing on the principle of what’s involved in the Old Testament, that the lesson of that discussion will not be missed in light of issues tied to sexual abuse, and to urge people to take sexual abuse seriously in the church, and that those who are victims should also be taken seriously for what it is that they have been through. And so, we ask you to watch this particular show with that in mind.

So let me turn to the topic. We’re actually gonna be dealing with three separate areas simultaneously, okay, which is a challenge. And then Gordon (Johnston)’s slides are a challenge in and of themselves, so we’re up against it. But the first is we’re gonna be dealing with the cultural context of ancient texts and the issue of the progress of revelation, how to handle texts that are set in a particular context but that raise questions for modern people because of the context in which they find themselves. The second thing we are dealing with is skeptical challenges of certain kinds of texts, and we’re gonna pick one example that is particularly challenging by the way some people use it to try and discredit the Bible.

And then the third thing we’re gonna do, just because two is too easy, is we’re gonna be dealing with a serious particular issue in the example we have, and that is the reality of violence against women in ancient world and God’s concern that his people rise above the pagan culture by treating women in general better. So that sets the stage for what we’re going to do. As you can tell, my guest of honor today is Gordon Johnson who teaches in Old Testament. Gordon, let’s go.

Gordon Johnston
Let’s go.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Gordon Johnston
So the title of our talk today is Doctor Who Meets Moses. Subtitle: Regulation in the Mosaic Torah the Modern Culture Finds Shocking. So mainstream scholarship and culture often claims that the Mosaic Torah specifically in Yahweh in general is a moral monster. They will often look at the Old Testament and see some of the things that God is portrayed as doing or some of the case laws in the Mosaic Torah and raise questions. So Eric Seibert in his book The Violence of Scripture, subtitled Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy says this: “Rather than condoning violence against women, several Old Testament texts actually condone it. While some might dismiss these laws as relics from the distant past, their violent ideology lingers on and continues to make itself felt even today. So Seber is not the only one in mainstream culture who’s making this claim, but he really epitomizes this as particularly texts that appear to be condoning violence against women.

So the text that we’re gonna focus on in particular kind of our test case is to ask the question is Seibert claim true? Does the Old Testament condone violence? Does it promote violence against women, or is it actually countercultural calling Israel to rise above and beyond the ancient culture and to treat women with respect, dignity, and kindness and to show compassion where the ancient culture was showing violence?

So the text we’re looking at is Deuteronomy 21
10-14. It’s a text that often raises questions in mainstream culture, and we want to be able to engage it. This is a case law regulating the Israelite warrior who captures a foreign woman and claims her as his share of the spoils of war and forces her to become his wife. So that right away raises questions, what in the world is going on? Here’s the case law. It says
Darrell Bock
So the point of this passage is that this woman is gonna be in mourning, right?
Gordon Johnston
Right.
Darrell Bock
She’s not looking her best.
Gordon Johnston
No.
Darrell Bock
Because of the mourning that has been – she’s been given the space to have from losing her family.
Gordon Johnston
Right. And on top of that, she’s been a captive of war. She is with no other options. She has been claimed by an Israelite warrior as his wife and really not given any opportunity to say no to the situation, so she’s probably not a very happy camper in the situation. So here’s some features in Deuteronomy as far as Darrell was trying to tease out, some features of Deuteronomy 21 that modern mainstream readers find troubling. First of all, divinely-sanctioned military siege of non-Canaanite cities, conquered citizens treated as spoils of war and property of victors, overemphasis on the physical beauty of foreign women, forced marriage of captive women to Israelite warriors, captive women only given 30 days to mourn the loss of their family, captive women not given the right to refuse marital sex and the right to divorce for any reason, was a prerogative of the man alone. That’s typically how this lands on modern mainstream readers. Okay.

Now to epitomize this we just celebrated in chapel not too long ago that Thomas Nelson is publishing the NET Bible, which is very annotated.

Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Gordon Johnston
There is another annotated Bible out there on the market that most of us probably don’t have. It’s the Skeptics Annotated Bible. This is published in the early 2000s, and they are raising all sorts of questions about things in the Bible. They’ve got a rating system. They award four rotten tomatoes to Deuteronomy 21. From the bottom up, they accuse it of promoting imperialistic war, crimes against humanity, social injustice against ethnic minorities. It’s promoting an oppressive patriarchal power structure, and the one that we’re focusing on today is, does it actually promote misogynistic attitudes toward women? But that’s their read on this text, and so they’re gonna argue that this kind of text like this makes God a moral monster.

So here’s how they are reading the text. This is the cliff notes in the Skeptics Annotated Bible. So this is the culture in which we find ourselves in; this is how difficult texts like this hit them. They’re gonna argue – the Skeptics Annotated Bible argues that Deuteronomy 21 function as a how-to manual teaching lusty young warriors how to sexually exploit foreign women. That it gave the Israelite warrior permission to capture a beautiful foreign woman and force her to become his wife, said that the Israelite man only needed to give her 30 days to mourn her parents whom they argue get killed, before having sex with her, and offered instructions on how the Israelite could get rid of her if it turned out he didn’t want to be married to her after all.

Darrell Bock
Sounds like a typical pastoral problem.
Gordon Johnston
[Laughs] Yeah. So you realize why this is a passage that we need to be able to deal with this. Now here’s what we think is happening. Mainstream culture typically argues that the Mosaic Torah, they’re arguing that it’s shockingly regressive. But they do this because in our evaluation they’re misreading the Mosaic regulations apart from the cultural context. They’re not understanding the culture in which Moses was writing; they’re not understanding the culture in which Yahweh was bringing Israel out of. What’s happening is they’re flattening out the reading, if you will. They’re reading the letter of the law. They’re reading the words on the page, but the page is seemingly frozen in time and they don’t understand the culture in which this text was. If you will, they’re imparting our culture upon it, and in their mind our culture is a lot more progressive and the Bible is regressive with really not understanding the cultural context.

So what we want to do is see if we can maybe take a trip back into time and understand the culture into which Moses is writing so we can see that the Bible is not being regressive; Moses and Yahweh is being progressive in light of the culture. We understand what was actually happening in that culture, we realize how revolutionary what Moses was doing in its context. So, Darrell, how are we gonna do this?

Darrell Bock
We’re gonna do this by time traveling like Doctor Who, and we’re gonna ask the question if Doctor Who had showed up in the time of Moses what would he have seen had he looked around him before he looked at this long? Okay. So I would do the music in the background, but I am musically challenged so that’s not happening.
Gordon Johnston
So we’re trying to do cultural engagement. One of the things we’re trying to do is teach the unknown in light of the known. So if you don’t know who Doctor Who is, just think time traveler, okay? So if we were to send Doctor Who back in time, would Doctor Who suffer cultural shock or would he understand the spirit of Torah? I think most modern readers today, contemporary readers in our culture, experience shock at the Torah; they don’t understand what they’re really looking at as cultural shock and what was happening in the culture.

So couple things about Mosaic Torah that are important to understand first that are often misunderstood. First of all, the Mosaic Torah was not designed and never pretend to establish an ideal society. The prophets envisioned that ideal society to come.

Darrell Bock
That’s the progress of revelation.
Gordon Johnston
Progress of revelation. Secondly, the Mosaic Torah focused on regulating specific legal matters and social injustices that were problems in the world in which Israel lived. So it’s dealing with the muck and mire and the problems that existed, trying to remedy the problems. It did not exhaustively address all the features in ancient Near Eastern culture. It addressed certain issues but did not challenge other deeply-ensconced features that in the progress of revelation God would begin to make further steps. So although the Mosaic Torah was God’s first word about moral ethics and social justice, it was certainly not his last word. It pointed forward in the right direction on the long path toward the ideal society that prophets envisioned in a progressively-revealed ethic. So it’s the first word but not the last word, but that first word really represents a revolution.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So that lays the premise, so what are the details?
Gordon Johnston
Okay, so the details. We have to understand what the culture was. Deuteronomy 21 needs to be read against the culture that modern readers often don’t appreciate. In ancient Near Eastern culture, imperialistic conquest of foreign nations was viewed as a valid way to expand your borders and enrich the nation. Victorious warriors also believed it was their right in the ancient world to loot and plunder a fallen city, to execute the male combatants, and to enslave the male and female survivors of the citizens. Victorious warriors also believed – and this is really sad – they also believed it was their right and privilege to rape the captive women and then to sell the captive women into slavery as concubines or in some cases to claim them as their own, not as their wives but as their own concubines. That was the ancient world in which Moses was writing.

Now in the larger patriarchal society that was male dominated, the men were the ones that arranged the marriage; the women often didn’t have a say in it. But above and beyond this, you have not just arranged marriages but you have a forced marriage of a captive woman who was in Israel but in the ancient Near East captive women were turned into concubines or into slaves. So here’s the typical treatment of foreign female captives of slave or captives of war in the ancient Near Eastern world. In the ancient Near Eastern world, warriors typically celebrated victory by ceremoniously executing the male enemy combatants, plundering the possessions of the concurred city, and forcing the captive women and children to slavery. Beautiful captive women typically suffered additional humiliation. They were subject to gang rape by their male captors. In fact, I have one ancient eastern text that actually talked about after they plundered the city, they would gather up all the women and at the signal the men would begin ravishing the women at the signal as part of the celebration.

Then the women were sold on the slave market to the highest bidders as concubines or forced to become the male warriors’ concubine against their will. So in light of that kind of context, Deuteronomy 21 represents a radical break in the cultural practice. The law describes a case when an Israelite warrior after victory sees a beautiful captive woman and is attracted to her. If the Israelite wanted to have sexual relations with her, Moses says you can’t rape her, and you can’t claim her as a concubine. If you want relations with her, you have to marry her. But before the marriage, the Israelite has to wait for a full 30 days to allow her time to grieve her family and to give the Israelite warrior time to think about what he was doing. Once he consummated the marriage, then she became his wife, full-fledged wife, not a concubine, full-fledged wife with all the rights of a native Israelite wife. And later if he decided he didn’t want to be married to her for whatever reason, Mosaic law allowed for divorce in certain situations. He was not allowed to sell her as a concubine, but he had to grant her freedom to go wherever she wanted. That’s a radical break in the culture.

Darrell Bock
Okay.
Gordon Johnston
I’m turning to you so I don’t do all the talking. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right. Well, it certainly is a significant difference, and it certainly takes the relationships in all kinds of different directions than where the culture was taking it.
Gordon Johnston
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
So it’s moving us in a direction but in the midst of moving it in a direction, we still have other moral issues when we think about the Bible as a whole as a cannon.
Gordon Johnston
Right, right.
Darrell Bock
So that’s where we’re going next.
Gordon Johnston
Right. So we won’t go into all the details but Deuteronomy 21 represents the first and only law in the ancient Near East that actually regulated battlefield conduct. In the ancient Near East, there were no laws regulating battlefield. This is the first law in the ancient Near East regulating what happens on the battlefield. Ancient Near Eastern law prohibited and punished rape in society, but those laws did not extend to the battlefield. Moses for the first time in ancient Near Eastern history is extending prohibition of rape to the battlefield. Ancient Near East the warriors were allowed to do anything they wanted, so this was the first and only law in the ancient east actually regulating this. So it’s not regressive, it’s what in its culture? Very progressive. Now it’s not where we would ultimately like it to be today, but it was a huge step in the right direction back in its own day.

Now a couple of features. There’s five or six features that represent remedies to the ancient Near East. First of all, the regulation functioned as a restraint against the moral weakness or warriors. In the ancient Near East, warriors when they saw a beautiful captive woman, they would rape them. Moses says, “No. If you want to have a relationship with her, you’re gonna have to marry her.” So effectively it takes the whole scenario out of the battlefield and puts it into the home. He’s going to have to marry her.

Secondly, it acknowledges the captive woman’s personal grief. In the ancient Near East, they would marry the woman, they would sell the woman or make her the concubine. Any kind of grief they didn’t care about the grief; they didn’t care about the collateral cost to the women. Moses says at the very least you give her 30 days; you’ve gotta give her 30 days to mourn, which was the typical time in the ancient Near East that you would have in the ritual mourning. So you have to allow her the customary time of mourning in order to mourn the grief as well as for the Israelite to think about what he’s doing. There’s also relaxation of ritual regulations out of compassion for the women. One of the things it says that she’s allowed to do is to trim her hair, to trim her nails, and to wear, if you will, sackcloth and ashes.

Those kind of ritual mourning customs, shaving your head and trimming their nails, those were the customs in ancient east for mourning the dead or mourning the loss. Deuteronomy said the Israelites were not allowed to do that themselves. But out of respect for this woman who’s already suffered this loss, these were part of the ritual mourning customs in her culture. Moses is relaxing Yahweh is relaxing the regulations that were permitted for Israel but allowing the women for humanitarian sake for her own interest and her own compassion. It’s bending over backwards to show compassion to her because she’s already suffered so much loss.

Fourth, one-month waiting period for the moral instruction of the Israelite. The rabbis argued that not only was the one month given for the woman out of compassion to her, for the typical amount of time to mourn her loss. It was also to give the Israelite time to think about what he’s doing. One would think that forcing a captive foreign woman to become your wife is probably not the best foundation for a happy home. And as the Israelite is looking at this grieving, weeping, bald woman and starting to see her grief, she would become not an object of his desires. What would she become? A full-fledged person in his eyes, and it would force him to realize the collateral damage that was being done. Even in the case of legitimate warfare, people suffer. At the very least, it would give him compassion to understand who she is and need her as an individual, as a person.

Number five, the captive woman would also become a full-fledged wife, not a concubine. He’s got to marry her and she would become his wife. In ancient Near East, she’s a concubine with no rights. In Israel she’s gonna have to be your wife, and with that is all the rights and all the privileges of a wife. And finally, if he then decides at the end of the day for whatever reason he doesn’t want to be married to her and the Mosaic law allowed certain exceptions for divorce, he can’t sell her as a concubine. Rather he’s got to grant her her full freedom. If you will, she actually comes out better in the end than somebody who’s been a captive in the situation, and the reason being he says because you’ve already humiliated her. So she wouldn’t be subject to the kind of forced labor that somebody else might have. And yes this doesn’t address every situation.

Darrell Bock
No, it doesn’t. But that’s if we put this law in its cultural context, this is where it’s sitting.
Gordon Johnston
This is where it’s sitting. It’s much, much better than what was happening throughout the rest of the ancient Near East.
Darrell Bock
For sure.
Gordon Johnston
Revolutionary. There’s ethics that are being taught. So the point is though this law did not address several features of ancient Near Eastern culture, the idea that sexual attraction alone was an adequate basis for marriage is not there. It just says, “If you see an attractive woman.” Okay. So it didn’t give advice to get to know the Israelite before marrying her. Now the rest of the Bible is pointing in that direction. Secondly, the idea the man had the right to take a woman as his wife or the right of a warrior to force a captive woman to become his wife. It’s going above and beyond the culture they would force to become a concubine, but it doesn’t address the patriarchal culture in which a man takes a wife. Third, the idea that a captive woman could adequately grieve within one month, I can’t imagine anybody ever getting over the loss of family in a month. And yet it’s at least allowing that, which in the ancient Near East, they didn’t even allow that.

Fourth, the idea that marriage was consummated simply by sexual initiative by the man rather than mutual concept of both partners. That’s not on the radar screen yet, and the idea that a man alone had the right to divorce a wife for any reason, a right that it didn’t also extend to the wife that’s not there yet. Now it’s a lot better than what was going on in the rest of the ancient New East. So Deuteronomy 21, although it doesn’t get us to the end of the path, it’s a significant step forward. It’s the first step in the right direction on a long path of a progressively revealed ethic. The prophets will envision a better society to come, if you will. Rather than the nations attacking one another to extend their boundaries and enrich the wealth, the prophets saw the day when the swords would be turned into plowshares. You’re not gonna be attacking nations or other cities anyway in the future; God is gonna bring about a time of peace.

Rather than women being subjected to arranged marriages or captive women forced marriages, the Hebrew poets envisioned a day in which women would be given the right to say no and have the prerogative to choose whom they want to marry. Even Song of Songs at the end of the day goes in that direction where the woman says, “My vineyard is mine to give to whomever I want.” And rather than a society of both citizens and slaves, the prophets foresaw a day in which God would pour out the Spirit upon all people, not just free but slaves, not just Jews but Gentiles, upon all people. And there would be servants to be sure that everyone would be fellow servants of Yahweh.

So as Scripture progressively moves forward toward the idea, the Spirit has helped us understand in the meantime that forcing a captive woman to marry a captor and taken from parents is probably not a good foundation for marriage. That sexual attraction alone is not an adequate basis for marriage, that a man doesn’t have a right to take a wife but that any marriage must be by mutual consent, and that marriage is not consummated simply by the sexual initiative by the man but by equal partners entering into a covenant by mutual consent. So this idea that Deuteronomy 21 represents God as a moral monster, that God is a moral monster, Deuteronomy 21 is regressive, that’s the way our culture will read it if they flatten everything out.

We think it’s better though to understand Deuteronomy 21 in light of its own culture, that Yahweh is calling his people to take the first step on a long path in the right direction in rising above the culture by showing kindness, compassion, consideration, and granting women all equal rights, not exploiting them and not showing violence to them. So hopefully if we sent Doctor Who back, hopefully he would understand not just the letter of the law but the spirit of the Torah. And we’re done.

Darrell Bock
That was amazing.
Gordon Johnston
That was amazing. You were afraid. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
I wasn’t afraid; I was just letting you get through the massive material. We had to get the context right. So let’s talk about this hermeneutically for a bit, and then we’ll turn to the student questions. So in pulling this all together, what’s being said here is when you see a law like this and the initial reaction is this doesn’t fit. And we’ve had this discussion before, I think I had Bob Chisholm come and do a cultural engagement chapel on the whole issue of the conquest and what people say about that. So this is like that discussion except in a different area. And so part of it is understanding the cultural context of what is going on, and that one part of the cultural context was you have a society that is sacrificing children without blinking an eye, etcetera, the ethical standard that the society has descended to an extremely low level. And so God judges that society and wants it eradicated. Here the picture is of a warzone that has no rules or laws.
Gordon Johnston
In ancient Near East the way you extend your influence is just by conquering and crushing your enemies.
Darrell Bock
So it’s an exercise of raw power.
Gordon Johnston
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
And in the midst of the exercise of raw power, we get abuse. And this is in an attempt to correct that abuse, to limit it and some degree reframe it.
Gordon Johnston
That’s right. And Israel is going out to battle, but unlike the rest of the ancient east, there’s laws of engagement. And one of the laws of engagement earlier in Deuteronomy 21 is you’ve got to give the city terms of surrender. You don’t just crush the city; you give them terms of surrender. Then they can get folded into Israelite society and opportunity to come to faith in Yahweh.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So that’s the one element is placing the text in its cultural context. The other thing we’re introducing as a concept, and this is a canonical concept, I want to be clear, is that as you move through the canon you see God continuing to deal with the areas that when we read this initial law seem not to be addressed.
Gordon Johnston
Right.
Darrell Bock
And he fills those areas up with more ethical teaching; I’m not sure how else to say it. With more ethical teaching as we move through the Scripture. And he’s also got our eye on something we still have our eye on today, which is when righteousness comes totally to the earth when Christ comes back and establishes God’s rule across the earth. So we aren’t in the ideal situation yet either.
Gordon Johnston
That’s’ right. And so the ethical ideal is what God ultimately wants to drive us toward with that kingdom ethic. And it’s important to understand the law itself was not primarily designed to reveal the ethic; the law was designed to deal with the problems.
Darrell Bock
The eschatological ethic you mean, yeah.
Gordon Johnston
That’s right. So here is the ultimate ethic in mind. The law was not getting the ideal; the law was dealing with the problems in society. Just like our laws today, they’re designed to deal with the problems that are down here rather than – they point toward the ideal but they’re not there yet.
Darrell Bock
So to put the two pieces together. It’s important to understand what the original cultural context is and what the problem is being dealt with and what the backdrop to that problem is and what the nature of the corrections are, if I can say it that way. The second thing to be aware of is the movement within the canon; I’m saying this strongly ’cause that’s the point. The movement within the canon that reveals a movement with regard to addressing certain areas that’s pulling you in a certain ethical direction as it moves along so that, for example, by the time we get to the New Testament we’ve got exhortations about monogamous marriage that we didn’t have in the Old Testament.

And so dealing with that issue and that problem, which sometimes also comes up, is a part of understanding this construct we’re talking about that is one way to deal with this issue. And the thing that we’re appealing to is to be careful not to read the Bible flat, to read it in such a way that you treat a proverb, for example, that is about a generalized truth as if it were an absolute promise that takes place every time. It’s getting your classifications of what the Bible is doing correct because the Bible is doing different things in different places.

Gordon Johnston
That’s right. And this is God’s first word, not his last word. And this law was not designed to simply give the ultimate ideal; it was designed to remedy problems that were there that they were encountering.
Darrell Bock
Now let’s be honest, this is not an easy conversation.
Gordon Johnston
Not an easy conversation.
Darrell Bock
And it’s a challenging feature of Scripture, and certainly in the context of our culture it takes a lot of work and understanding about the Bible in order to get people to even think about this in these kinds of ways.
Gordon Johnston
But it’s important for us to have because otherwise we’re not gonna have good viable responses when people say, “Is this your God?”
Darrell Bock
Right. And I sometimes say when you’re engaging with someone who is coming at the Bible from a different perspective than you are, that your first assignment is to give them what I call pause, that just to have them think about what actually is going on and to give them pause. Greg Koukl who does apologetics speaks about putting a rock in their shoe. You know how a rock is very irritating when it just kind of hangs there and you’re moving around and you try to shake it in the right place so your foot doesn’t step on it, etcetera. It’s just a little irritant, and the irritant is to have them consider the possibility there’s another way to think about this than the way they’re thinking about it, and to put that out on the table for discussion is one way to begin to deal with the mindset that says, “Well, this is just outrageous.”
Gordon Johnston
And we’ve tried to do that through the image of let’s go back in time and understand that culture and what God is actually doing within that culture.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Let me turn to some of the questions now that we’ve been corrected on how we use Doctor Who. Technically his name is The Doctor, not Doctor Who. So we didn’t need to explain the show to that person.
Gordon Johnston
I actually got an email from a friend and he said you’ve gotta call him The Doctor, and so I was not culturally engaged.
Darrell Bock
All right. Correction dually accepted; we move on.
Darrell Bock
Why simply improve the culture as opposed to go all the way and elevating protecting women?
Gordon Johnston
That’s a great question.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. I think that is a very, very good and fair question. I do think that what you see in cultural engagement, and I’ll take this one on, I do think what you see sometimes in cultural engagement where there is a social problem is when you try to go somewhere very fast you don’t bring a lot of people with you. I think we see that even today. And so it may be that it is the better path of wisdom to work this a step at a time as opposed to try and do it all at once. At least that would be I think my take on how to think about this kind of question.
Gordon Johnston
And I think even if we think about our own country, the Declaration of Independence articulated the ideal all men are created equal. Okay, that’s the ideal. That’s the principles our good nation was founded upon. A decade later when the Bill of Rights were put together, the problem was we had northern states and southern states. There was slavery in the southern states and not in the northern states, and they wanted to keep the Union together. So they had a compromise and it was a regrettable compromise, which is a compromise they made because they said if we insist on no slave states, the Union will be fragmented and will never have the opportunity to eventually abolish slavery. So what they did is they did not permit slavery on a Federal level. They allowed each state to continue but with the declaration and hope in mind that eventually future generations would take a long look at the Declaration and the ethic there would eventually begin to penetrate. Thomas Jefferson himself said towards the end of his life he was saddened that the second generation it still had not dawned upon them what the declaration all men are created equal meant. And he felt as if eventually that ethic would eventually penetrate, and eventually it did. But it was a long journey, wasn’t it?
Darrell Bock
Yeah. In fact, Jefferson didn’t even consistently apply it himself.
Gordon Johnston
Well, actually here’s the irony. Jefferson inherited the slaves from his father. His father was a slave owner. He didn’t buy any slaves; he inherited the slaves. And in that day and age you were not permitted to free slaves; that was a state law. He wasn’t permitted to free them.
Darrell Bock
So even that’s more complicated.
Gordon Johnston
It was a lot more complicated than we often make it out to be.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Here’s another question, interesting one. So if I accept the progressive revelation stance, that sounds like a premise someone had some questions about, what then is the purpose of these problematic texts now? Are they merely to establish background for later revelation of the prophets in New Testament and church history?
Gordon Johnston
That’s a great question. Yeah. I think what it does is helps us to appreciate the fact that indeed there is progressive revelation. We accept as dogma I think that there’s progressive revelation of Messiah. I think we accept that there’s progressive revelation of eschatological prophesy. Could it also be there is progressive revelation of God’s ethic? In Genesis Yahweh calls Abraham to teach his tenants to walk in the way of Yahweh by doing mispat and sedaqah, moral righteousness and social justice. What that looks like doesn’t get teased out until later revelation, so I think there is progressive revelation even of God’s moral ethic, that he’s gradually taking us in that direction.
Darrell Bock
Okay, here’s the next one. Do we simply pick and choose what applies to cultural progress? How do we not get lost in cultural ambiguity with this model today?
Gordon Johnston
That’s a great question.
Darrell Bock
So I think the question becomes how do we assess – and this is an important skill – how do we assess the discernment that is required as a Christian thinks through what is an alternate lifestyle and ethic that the Bible presents in relationship to the world around them? There are lots of places for discernment today, in case you’ve been missing the news. The way in which Christians are called to live, in contrast to what the culture accepts, they don’t even blink at anymore, is a way of thinking about this. and the reason we’ve stressed the idea this is a Canonical model is don’t hear us to say this, that the Scripture is moving in a certain direction and then we have the freedom to move in additional directions beyond what the Scripture is saying. That’s not what we’re saying when talking about a progressive revelatory ethic. What we’re saying is that the Cannon by the time we get to the New Testament is giving us the parameters by which we should function as the people of God, and in the midst of that the contrast of what that ethic is in relationship to what goes on currently in our culture is, and I don’t think you need a PhD to figure this out, is a little bit different.
That the way we’re called to live in terms of sexuality, the way we’re called to live in terms of how we interact with gender, the way in which the New Testament even reconfigures legitimate categories of power and rank by the way we’re supposed to live in the midst of those structures stands out in contrast to our culture as opposed to being aligned with it. And that’s one of the ways we show even in the midst of – the classic example of this in the New Testament is Ephesians 5
22-33. The Bible doesn’t blink in using a word like submission; our culture blinks at the word of submission. But the Bible also doesn’t blink at the idea that the husband, in fact it spends more time on this, is to love the wife and then goes through an array of descriptions about what that love looks like that so reconfigures the way power is normally seen in the Greco-Roman world that basically what has happened is you’ve gotten a reconfiguration of the relationship as a result.
Gordon Johnston
See we take it for granted that husbands are supposed to love their wives. Greco-Roman world that was kind of a shocking concept.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So this idea of redefining – just look at one of the core claim about disciples. Who is the greatest disciple according to Jesus? What kind of role do they take? A servant. Well, actually you’ve translated it pretty nicely, okay. You put it in a western comfy bed, okay. It’s not a servant. What is it? It’s a slave. That’s a reversal. That’s an ethical reversal the culture does not understand. It takes the Spirit of God to get there, which is why the Gospel is also important ’cause you don’t bring people to this place without the work of the Spirit of God and doing a little bit of evangelism and people being drawn into the faith, etcetera, which is why we have the Great Commission, which makes sense. So this kind – this isn’t a matter of picking and choosing and applying cultural progress. This is about the ability to develop an understanding of Scripture and the ability to discern in the midst of the way Scripture presents what the Christian calling is, that you actually have a sense of how Christians are to live that is different and distinct from what’s going on around them.

And I dare say that one of the problems we have in the church today is that our churches are too aligned with what goes on in the culture, generally speaking, and not aligned enough with the distinctiveness of Christian practices in a variety of these areas as conceived by the Bible. And that undercuts our testimony. When we are inconsistent about what we espouse in the public square and what we support in the public square and that doesn’t align with what we ethically say is the core of our character, then we undercut our ability to issue a moral challenge to the society we’re called to challenge about living faithfully before God.

Gordon Johnston
And what Darrell is talking about we’re getting this from the canon. We’re not back reading from our culture into the Bible. But think about the two layers. In Deuteronomy 21 it talks about when you go out to battle and this happens. Micah in the progressive revelation and Isaiah says, “There is gonna come a day in which you’re no longer gonna have to go to battle. You’re gonna be pounding your swords into plowshares.” So that’s the direction. In the current day and age in the world in which we live, we’re gonna have to protect ourselves and do these things for safe and security because we live in a horrendous world. But there is coming a day and that’s where we’re ultimately wanting to go. So that’s a Canonical move within itself, isn’t it, with progress?
Darrell Bock
Well, as I said, this is not an easy topic. It is one that demands reflection and it’s not something solved by 30 minutes and two commercial breaks. But it is worth discussing. And I think having an awareness hermeneutically of what the Bible is and how it can function actually helps us understand some of these texts that frankly when we initially read them coming out of the 21st century out of the west we go, “What is going on there?” Well hopefully you have a little sense of that was going on there. Let’s pray. Father, we do thank you for this opportunity to be together and to reflect on your Word and to take what probably for many people is an obscure text and think about how it really works, what you were doing with it and why, and the call underneath it that is made to us as men and women of God to live in a way that honors you, that reflects the distinctiveness of the way you call us to live, and a distinctiveness that shines out because it is in contrast to what’s going on around us. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Gordon H. Johnston
Dr. Johnston possesses a generalist’s breadth and a specialist’s depth. He is known for thorough research and meticulous detail, as well as his ability to pull together all the pieces so students can see the whole of Scripture in all its color and beauty. Dr. Johnston has degrees in Classical Greek (BA), Biblical Greek and Hebrew (ThM), as well as Hebrew and Semitic languages (ThD). During his 2010-11 sabbatical, he was visiting research professor at the University of Chicago, where he studied Hittite. He has participated in archaeological excavations in Israel and has taught overseas in India. His research, writing and teaching interests include the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), selected topics in Old Testament biblical theology (Biblical Covenants, Law of God), and special issues in hermeneutics (Messianic Prophecy, Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament). Dr. Johnston has published many scholarly articles and essays; regularly presents papers at national meetings of academic societies; and has published a book on the Messiah in the Old Testament. Gordon and his wife, Danielle, have been married more than thirty years; they have three children.
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