Approved or Tolerated?The Bible doesn’t supply and doesn’t pretend that it supplies every answer to every moral question we can raise. But it reveals God and comes to its greatest height when it reveals God in and as Jesus Christ. It does this in numerous rich ways and having done it the Bible urges us to work on that basis in answer to the question, "How then shall we live?" It provides the groundwork by which we can learn to "think theologically".
Leviticus 19 tells Israel to leave the edges of their fields for the poor but doesn’t define what constitutes an "edge". How are they to obey the call if they don’t know what an "edge" is? He concludes numerous verses with the motivational phrase, "I am the Lord your God!" But that’s more than motivation. It teaches them how to think of an "edge". Not with a measuring line or a dictionary. They will know what an "edge" means when they know who their Lord is. He’s the one that "brought you out of the land of Egypt." Bearing that in mind, when they come to harvesting they’ll not quibble and get as near to the edge of their property as possible. The issue isn’t settled by lexicons and logic, it’s by one’s experience with God and how that shapes our response to the neighbor.
It’s clear that the Bible tolerates things and we are seduced into thinking that that means those things are approved. To think this might not be sheer hardness of heart but it’s certainly ignorance. Pharisees saw "divorce for any cause" as approved and Jesus showed it was only tolerated and regulated. The notion that polygamy was approved in the OT is false—it was tolerated. And slavery is tolerated in both the OT and NT but it’s never approved. (More needs to be said about "slavery" and what the word means in numerous OT texts.) Concubinage is tolerated in the OT but never approved.
But since we in the West are not troubled with polygamy and concubinage we can shrug at all that. Now "slavery"—that’s another matter. It wasn’t very long ago that Western nations were using the OT to approve of slavery. (Let me repeat: in the OT, all "slavery" is not slavery.)
I want to make it clear that it simply isn’t enough to quote verses in support of our claims and conclude we have a right to practice the same or something similar.
Pharisees could quote Deuteronomy 24:1-5 and look back on fifteen hundred years of history and practice to support their divorcing their wives for what so often were trivial reasons. Jesus condemned their hearts and their behavior as "adulterous". I had a 20th century Western man argue with me his right to have more than one wife because the OT regulated (rather than outlawed) polygamy. It must have been okay because it was "regulated," he insisted.
The same thing is done to defend and support "our friend" the booze industry. Because people in the Bible daily drank intoxicating wine and because God is said to give wine as a gift to humans it’s immediately assumed that that means he would be pleased with our supporting the booze industry. [I won’t enter the discussion here about the generic nature of the biblical words rendered "wine" and "strong drink" or "beer". Another time perhaps.] But the very idea that naturally fermented wine or beer or "strong drink [as the Hebrew term is translated in English] is anything like the wines and beers or spirits the booze industry sells—that’s nonsense!
It doesn’t matter to me that tens of thousands of people can support the booze industry and themselves not get overwhelmed. Good for them! If they were all that mattered I suppose the matter wouldn't be worth discussing. But hundreds of millions of people—drinkers and those they affect—are put through purgatory by what the booze industry sells. There isn’t another "respectable" business under heaven that does the damage to a countless host of our struggling fellow-humans that comes anywhere near the ruin the booze industry generates.
We boycott all kinds of companies (from fur companies to soap to sauce) if we think they’re hurting animals or poor people in "sweat shops" and then we do what? We support and defend the worst plague on earth. And all because they drank intoxicating wine in the Bible and because Jesus made gallons and gallons of it [so we're told]. Well, there's more to it than that, isn' there! We prize our "freedom".
One of these days if we’re "lucky" we’ll come to see that the booze industry is against all we’re for and for all we’re against!
To interpret the Bible in the spirit of the Story as a whole requires more than lexicons, grammars and other exegetical tools. I understand for personal reasons that we don't always live up to what we know—my life has been littered with failures—and that's tragic. But our failure to live up to the best we know mustn't be used to lower the loving response to God that we see and hear in scripture.
God's heart, his purpose and his love for the human family seen climatically in the Lord Jesus is the best hermeneutical tool available to us [see Ephesians 5:1-2; Romans 15:1-3]. Each Christian will have to work this out within his/her own heart. But surely:
"I have the right..." [real or imagined] is not to be and will not be the last word about a host of things to those among us who reflect the heart and mind of God better than the rest of us.