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  • Rich Scheenstra

How the Bible Actually Works (Part 2)

Updated: Jan 26

This is the third in a series of posts about the Bible and eventually about same sex marriage. So far we’ve been focusing on how the Bible actually works. In my last post I said that the Bible doesn't function as a history or science textbook. While biblical authors often talk about real historical events, they don’t hesitate to put their own artistic and theological twist on those events. That’s actually how historical writing was expected to be written in the ancient world. That’s what makes these works “inspired” rather than just accurate in a modern sense. Neither do we read the Bible for a scientific account for how the world was created, especially since that wasn’t what the author of Genesis was trying to do.

So while the Bible has a lot of history, it’s not a history textbook. And while it has a lot of references to the natural world, it doesn’t pretend to be a science textbook either. A third common misconception is that the Bible is a rule book.

It isn’t. I understand why many people feel a need for the Bible to be a rule book. They want a book that will tell them what to do in each and every situation. But the Bible doesn’t come anywhere close to trying to meet that need. It didn’t even try to meet that need for the people of Israel. Sure, there are a lot of rules at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures – 613 to be exact. Which sounds like a lot, and it would be, if, for example, my wife and I had 613 rules for our marriage. That would definitely be over the top. But we’re talking about 613 rules for an entire nation. Imagine the United States only having 613 rules covering every village, city, county and state, and all three branches of government with all their agencies and committees. (A libertarian’s dream!) Most Jewish scholars believe the compilers of the Torah included just enough rules from a much larger body of laws to give the reader a sample of the kinds of laws that governed Israel’s common life. Many of these laws are pretty general and are less than clear both in their meaning and application.

An example would be the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. There aren’t any specific instructions about what qualifies as “work.” Different branches of Judaism disagree about this even today. In Jesus’ day, Pharisees reportedly had 365 rules for what people could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. When I grew up, our family wasn’t allowed to watch TV on Sundays (which is a kind of Christian Sabbath) – that is, until we got home from evening church and Dad wanted to watch Bonanza. When Dad was a child growing up in the Netherlands, he wasn’t allowed to ice skate on the canals on Sundays, which never made any sense to him. Skating was fun, not work!

As a rule book or law code, the Bible can be pretty confusing. While there are certainly law codes within the Bible, especially within the Hebrew Bible, they’re clearly meant for a particular time and culture. A lot of the rules have to do with food laws and rituals that Christians don’t practice today, even though they consider the Hebrew Scriptures part of their Bible. Laws prohibiting wearing tattoos or multi-fabric garments are also obviously dated. A number of rules are adapted and sometimes set aside even within the Bible itself, especially as we move into the New Testament. Jesus’ seeming disregard for Sabbath laws was a continual source of irritation for the religious leaders of his day, especially when he called himself “Lord of the Sabbath!” Later the apostle Paul wrote: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5), which seems like a pretty casual approach to take to one of the Ten Commandments.

In the New Testament, there are rules about women wearing some kind of head covering during worship (at least within one church) and slaves obeying their masters – rules that almost everyone today views as time and culture bound. (One of my guiding principles is that an inspired word is not necessarily the last word on a subject.)

The Bible could hardly be called a rule book, as rules make up a very small portion of the Bible, including the Hebrew Bible. Most of them are confined to the Pentateuch, or the first five books. What’s interesting is that very little reference is made to specific rules in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. As Hebrew scholar Joshua Berman, an Orthodox rabbi and biblical scholar, has written: laws didn’t have the same function in ancient Israel as they do in our modern world. When we see the word “law,” we assume it’s referring to statutory law, or law that’s to be strictly and universally applied as written. But laws never functioned in that way within ancient Israel, or any place else in the ancient Near East. As recently as the early 19th century, the vast majority of Germans, Englishmen, and Americans also thought about law in very different terms – namely, as common law rather than statutory law. This is how Berman describes common law:

...a judge arrives at a decision based not on a written code but on the mores and spirit of the community and its customs. Legal norms develop, gradually, through the distillation and continual restatement of such court decisions, and judges are empowered incrementally to modify those norms in consultation with previous judicial formulations. Critically, the judicial decision itself does not create binding precedent.
When decisions and precedents are collected and written down, the resultant texts do not become the source of law but rather a resource for later jurists to consult.

The most commonly adopted and copied law code in the ancient Near East was the Code of Hammurabi. And yet among the thousands of legal documents and judicial decisions discovered by archaeologists from this period, not one refers to this code. This shows how unbinding these so-called laws were on those who were charged with applying them. The ancients simply didn’t understand “law” in the way we do today. These “laws” were meant to be instructive rather than binding. That’s why Israel’s judges had to be not only learned but wise.

So when Jesus was confronted with a woman who’d been caught in the act of adultery, he wasn’t obligated by the Hebrew law, as originally understood, to order her execution as her accusers were hoping. As a “judge” in Israel he could interpret and execute the law in a way that he believed was appropriate for the circumstances.

When capital punishment, for example, was attached to a particular law in the Hebrew Bible, it was meant to communicate the severity of the infraction, not the necessity of a particular consequence. When King David, for example, committed adultery, no one, including the prophet Nathan, suggested that David should be stoned. That possibility isn’t even mentioned, even though it was the consequence attached to the Mosaic law.

By the time of Jesus, experts in the law had developed a rigid understanding of the law that was informed more by Greek and Roman law than the Hebrew Scriptures.

So here is another instance in which we moderns have imposed assumptions on the Bible that don’t fit how the Bible actually works. When we examine biblical “rules” about same-sex sex, for example, it’s a mistake to think that these are automatically binding on us today, any more than we believe rules about tattoos or multi-fabric clothing or prohibitions against eating pork automatically apply. Nor should we assume that prohibitions against same-sex sex automatically apply to same-sex marriage. They may apply, but only after careful study of their cultural context and underlying wisdom. Virtually all Christians agree that there are some laws in the Bible that no longer apply. (Anyone serving ham for Christmas?) What I’ve tried to show is that this kind of flexibility around rules is baked into the Old Testament law codes themselves, because of how rules were understood and applied in ancient cultures.

When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, he was being asked to do something that many had done before him. Though the number of laws in the Torah can be debated, early rabbis recognized the ability to “reduce” many laws to just a handful that fully captured the spirit of the law. The famous passage that illustrates this is the Babylonian Talmud (one of the primary sources for interpreting Jewish religious laws and theology). It states: 613 Commandments were given to Moses. David reduced those commandments to eleven (Psalm 15). Isaiah reduced them to six (Isaiah 33:15-16). Micah the prophet reduced them to three (Micah 6:8). Isaiah again reduced them to two (Isaiah 56:1). Amos reduced them to one (Amos 5:4). Habakkuk further reduces them to say, “But the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). So early on Jewish legal experts were wanting to focus on the spirit of the law and not just its particular instructions, which often had to be adapted, especially when the people were in exile. One of the most familiar summaries of the law is found in Micah 6:8 – “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Here’s something else to consider: the Hebrew Scriptures don’t actually have a word for “law” as we understand it. The word torah, for example, while often translated law, actually means instruction, direction, or guidance – words that feel much less absolute.

So when we talk about rules in the Bible, we need to understand how rules actually work in the Bible. There is a flexibility and adaptability around rules already within the Hebrew Scriptures, which only increases as we move into the New Testament. Here are some examples of how the New Testament authors viewed not only particular Old Testament laws, but the law as a whole:

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6).
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God (Galatians 2:19).
Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [i.e. the law]. (Galatians 3:25).
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace ((Ephesians 2:14-15).
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:18-19).

So New Testament authors no longer saw the law as binding. And yet they often referred to specific laws in order to apply the underlying wisdom. While no longer binding, these laws could still be instructive. Instead of creating new laws, Jesus often used hyperbole in order to make sure we wouldn’t turn his teachings into absolute rules. Like when he said: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). I have yet to meet anyone who adheres to a strict interpretation of passages on same-sex sex, and has also been obedient to this command of Jesus. (Jesus actually devoted a lot more of his teaching to the dangers of wealth than he did to the dangers of sex.)

So we shouldn’t come to the Bible as a history or science textbook, nor as a rule book. How should we approach it then? In my next post I’ll talk about coming to the Bible as Story, Shepherd and Sacred Space – which I believe fits with how the Bible actually works.


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