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Viewpoint: The Real Threat to Adventism is Biblical Literalism


5:45am.  Half awake in an airport, I scanned the New York Times headlines (August 14) on my iPhone.  The very first headline caught my eye: ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape. I woke up. 

A 12-year-old girl describes how an Islamic State fighter would pray before and after raping her. “I kept telling him it hurts–please stop. He told me that according to Islam, he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. “He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God.” 

The article tells how, before their assault on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, ISIS had done extensive advance planning to capture, transport, isolate, warehouse, advertise, display and sell Yazidi girls and women into slavery, sexual slavery, partly as strategy to attract new fighters to ISIS.

It’s chilling—the foundation for this “100 percent preplanned” and systematic atrocity is theological. ISIS commissioned sharia scholars to render an opinion that the Yazidi girls and women were enemy women and it is halal to rape them and use them as they please. 

According to the Times, “In much the same way as specific Bible passages were used centuries later to support the slave trade in the United States, the Islamic State cites specific verses or stories in the Quran or else in the Sunna, the traditions based on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, to justifying human trafficking, experts say. 

“Scholars of Islamic theology disagree, however, on the proper interpretation of these verses, and on the divisive question of whether Islam actually sanctions slavery…Many argue that slavery figures in the Islamic scripture in much the same way that it figures in the Bible–as a reflection of the period in antiquity in which the religion was born.

So obviously, Islamic scholars differ on how to interpret their scriptures: literally, without regard to context—like ISIS—or, taking cultural influences into account.

It didn’t take me long to start contemplating the current debate about hermeneutics within Adventism.

We have our devotees of a “plain reading,” a literalistic approach to scripture.  From this perspective, cultural influences did not make it into the Bible; the Holy Spirit screened all those influences out before words got on clay tablet or parchment.  In this view, the writers presumably had all cultural influences expunged from their minds; either that or the connection between brain and hand was lost while the Holy Spirit’s hand took over the pen.  Precedent is prescriptive, in this view.

Then we have those who believe that the Bible, and events in the Bible, were sometimes culturally influenced and not necessarily applicable forever. In this camp, precedent is not prescriptive. It is descriptive. 

As I read the Times article, I wondered whether the Bible has any parallels that would support the ISIS practice.

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month.  After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.”  Deuteronomy 21:10-13.

Without splitting hairs concerning minor differences, these texts sound similar to the practices of ISIS described in the Times article. 

In both the Deuteronomy verses and ISIS practice, enemy women were taken against their will and subjected to sexual relationships, sanctioned by their relevant deity.  Let us not romanticize or sanitize the Deuteronomy text because it says, “she shall be your wife.” These were captive women, perhaps newly widowed or stolen young girls, spoils of war, taken by lusting men, unwilling participants in sex and servitude. 

I am neither a biblical scholar nor an expert in hermeneutics. But it seems to me that a reading of the Bible sometimes reveals that culture is inextricably embedded within Scripture. 

I venture that most of us view slavery, particularly sexual slavery, as unquestionably a moral evil. And yet, we find ancient Israel, the LORD’s chosen people, being given instructions on how to go about the sexual subjugation of captive women. So maybe sexual slavery is not actually a moral evil. After all, God does not change. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). 

Maybe living in a secular culture that has rejected slavery as immoral and illegal has influenced our views. Maybe sexual slavery is still valid.

No. I don’t believe that.

But reading the Bible without taking into account historical context could lead to the conclusion that it is.

This article is not intended to be about slavery. That just happens to be the vehicle to illustrate for one neophyte the challenges that surround hermeneutics.   


Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant, president of The Reifsnyder Group, and senior vice-president of FaithSearch Partners. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have two daughters.

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