“That goes without saying” is a phrase we’ll use from time to time to describe something we feel is obviously understood by our audience. Because we feel it is self-evident, it lets us move on without explanation.
But what “goes without saying” can often make interpreting the Bible challenging. When we’re reading a document that spans thousands of years and was written by people from very different cultures, there is much room for misinterpretation.
What “went without saying” to them may not be so obvious to us. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so it is human nature to fill in the blanks – often incorrectly. Additionally, “what goes without saying” for us may lead us to completely miss the point the original author intended.
A couple examples from the Bible come to mind.
Moses’ brother and sister were not happy with his choice for a wife: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite (Numbers 12:1).” Clearly, since Zipporah’s native land of Cush is mentioned twice, Moses’ siblings are having race issues. A quick glance at a Bible atlas lets us know that Cush is a region in the southern Nile River Valley. She was a dark-skinned African.
Since we’re not sure what Miriam’s and Aaron’s beef was specifically, we’re inclined to fill in the blanks from our own sordid, misinformed background. We wrongly imagine that “it goes without saying” that Moses’ siblings think Zipporah the Cushite is Moses’ (and their) inferior.
We might even be tempted to think (as some earlier Bible commentators do) that because she is black, she was a slave. But we would be wrong on all counts. The Cushites, in reality, were a highly respected, noble race in the ancient world.
We also know that Zipporah was the daughter of Jethro, called the “Priest of Midian,” and very likely a wealthy man. Moses, on the other hand, has just discovered his Hebrew slave-heritage, was a criminal (sought for murder), and was himself on the lam with no worldly goods to his name. We incorrectly imagine Moses married below himself.
In reality, if there was a “marrying below one’s station,” it was Zipporah who married below herself, not Moses. This is highlighted by Miriam’s and Aaron’s next comment: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us… (Numbers 12:2)?” They seem to be upset that Moses is putting on airs and presumptuously marrying above his station. They are whining: “Moses isn’t the only prophet here – we are, too! Who does he think he is?”
We find something similar in the New Testament. After the church is founded in Acts 2, the good news of Jesus begins to spread in concentric circles from Jerusalem. A significant moment is found in Acts 8 when the Apostle Philip converts a black-skinned Ethiopian to Christianity and the gospel reaches the continent of Africa.
In Luke’s account, the African is reading the scroll of Isaiah and the conversation begins: “…Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30-31).”
What might (erroneously) “go without saying” is that Philip humbled himself to enlighten this ignorant African traveler to the gospel. And again, we would be wrong. It turns out that this man (in his chariot with his retinue) was one of the more powerful and influential men in the world. There certainly was an act of humility and condescension, but it was not on the Apostle Philip’s part. It came when this Ethiopian ambassador stopped his chariot to let a poor traveler join him.
Several years later, Paul would write: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” This verse is a beautiful reminder to us that whatever issues of race we have here on this fallen planet, they did not begin with God. Christianity clearly teaches equality and egality among races and genders.
However, “what goes without saying,” as we read Paul’s statement, is the false assumption that Paul is making concessions: Jew is better than Greek – but God still loves the Greek. Freeman is better than slave – but God still loves the slave. Male is better than female – but God still loves women.
Again, we are wrong.
If this were Paul’s meaning, it would not be very shocking. That type of thinking could be readily found in Judaism. Rather, Paul’s statement was radically different – so different that his opponents sought to kill him for it. So different that, when this new theological reality began to take hold, it changed the world.
Rome’s economy was built on slavery. By the end of the first century, it is estimated that 35-40% of the Italian peninsula’s population was slaves. It was the church (and a few Stoic philosophers) who worked against the social construct of slavery – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
It was the church who gave full rights of membership and status to slaves. The church spoke against ill-treatment of slaves. The church preached equality of all peoples. The church collected money to buy slaves’ freedom. And it was the church who promoted slaves to leadership roles (Onesimus, the slave mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philemon, would eventually become the Bishop of Ephesus).
So when Paul says, “There is no slave nor free” in God’s economy, it is not from a benign, exalted position of authority that he deigns to offer grace to lower people. He is lower people.
Part of our problem in the American church is we forget our heritage. Our movement began at the bottom rung of the ladder. Perhaps we should stay put.