Biblical understandings of human gender: How to read the Bible: Verses are meaningless


Following a comment from Heather (on the post that prompted this series) I realised that I’ll need to tackle the larger and more important topic of how to read the Bible (logically before, in practice alongside) looking for a biblical understanding of gender.

The spoof post I linked to, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that it parodies, are both (in places) close to textbook examples of how NOT to read Scripture. The discussions in Christian circles about gender roles  have largely been like this, as most of us who have strong views on the subject have happily twisted the Bible to support our views. So, this time, in the hope of mitigating this tendency, I will post occasional contributions that set out the standards to which I want to be held, and to which I would expect to call my interlocutors to account.1

Verses are meaningless

This subheading is patently untrue. Verses do carry meaning. Yet it is an untruth that mediates a deeper truth. For no fragment of text can be properly and fully understood apart from the larger discourses of which it forms part.

On the smallest scale the simple clear sentence: “There is no God.” is thoroughly biblical.2 Yet only the most stupid person would claim that atheism is taught in Scripture.

On the largest scale each of Job’s friends makes long and complex speeches seeking to defend God’s justice against Job’s accusations. At the end of the book, like the “The fool says in his heart:” that precedes the sentence “There is no God.” in the psalms, stands God’s clear warning about the friends’ speeches: “The LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’” (Job 42:7) Which should warn us at the very least not to take the friends’ teaching as unequivocally the teaching of Scripture!

So “verses” (by which I mean here not only actual numbered units, but any small fragment of Scripture) should never be read alone, but always as part of a longer passage. Usually this longer passage is a chapter, paragraph or similar unit, which itself is part of a book.3

Principle 1

Therefore, to put it positively, the first standard of interpretation to which I want to be held accountable is that: When using any fragment of Scripture we consider it  in the larger discourse of which it is part and take account of the role it plays.

Beyond that, however, subtle nuances can have profound effects.4 Think of the error we would make in interpreting an ironic remark at face value.5 Because subtle nuances that we can easily miss, especially in written texts, can have such strong impacts, we should never take as “biblical” any teaching that seems to fit poorly with its surrounding text.6

Principle 2

If our understanding of a fragment does not “fit” with the tenor and contents of the surrounding text we should not extract “biblical teaching” from our understanding of that fragment.

  1. By this I mean, if we disagree about how to handle Scripture we can deal with it slightly outside the “gender wars” forum and so perhaps render our conversations less acrimonious. []
  2. It only occurs as a sentence in English in the NIV in Ps 14:1 & 53:1, but there are several other places where the phrase in Hebrew might be read as a sentence. []
  3. The case of the proverbs in Pr 10ff. is a special one, as there often a proverb must be read with others that occur at seemingly random places in the whole. For proverbs “work” through the wisdom of knowing when to apply which. “He who hesitates is lost.” and “Look before you leap.” do not really both apply to the same situations, yet both are good proverbs. []
  4. And in speech these subtle nuances are often signaled, not in words, but by features like tone of voice that are not represented in writing. []
  5. ‘Oh good!’ I exclaimed as I slipped and fell on the wet concrete, ‘Now I’ll be hobbling when I preach in Taupo this Sunday.'” does not actually mean that I was happy to have fallen because my swollen toes would cause me to hobble, and so not appear confident and proud, when I preached in Taupo yesterday. []
  6. In the case of my ironic remark, in the previous note, my failure in the surrounding text, not quoted here, which was purely concerned with fitting the hot tub lid and cleaning and covering my wounds, to mention humility should signal the likelihood that this literal interpretation of my words is not the full story. []

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