Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fighting with the Bible

When I asked the question, “what do we do with the troubling parts of the Old Testament?”, there were a couple of reasons I thought the book of Job would have some good insights. Comparing my difficulties with Job’s might make this a little clearer.

In reading scripture, we come across actions attributed to God that are in tension with what we know of ultimate justice, goodness, compassion, and wisdom. Why command the destruction of entire peoples? Why indiscriminately slaughter rich tyrants and poor beggars? Why kill David’s infant son for his murder of Uriah, while killing poor Uzzah for a harmless attempt to keep the Ark from falling? Shall not the judge of all the Earth do what is just?

Job faced actions by God that cause similar tension. Why bring a righteous and godly man to ruin? Why make him a laughingstock in front of his friends? Why kill his sons and daughters while wicked men live in happiness? Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty?

I suggest we take Job as our guide through these dark waters, imitating him as he imitates Christ.

On the left hand is the voice of Job’s wife, mockingly asking, “Do you still hold fast to that archaic Old Testament? Curse it and move on!” To this Job responds, “You speak as one of the arrogant moderns speak. Shall we praise Jesus for his enlightenment, and reject the very scriptures that were his lifeblood?”

On the right are Job’s three friends, defending the inerrancy of scripture at all costs. “Does God put imperfection in the Bible? If something seems unjust to you, then it is your notion of justice that is flawed.” To this Job answers, “Will you defend what you know to be wicked (like mass genocide), in an attempt to justify scripture? Will the righteous judge, who gave you your conscience and your intellect, be impressed with a blind faith that would follow an evil god as quickly as a good one?”

So we scuffle with scripture. We reject any compromise or middle ground for the paradox of Job’s position:
Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
yet I will argue my ways to his face.
To be sure, our hubris is absurd, and we will be humbled. God himself will appear out of the whirlwind and ask, “Where were you when the ancient forerunners and prophets wrote the Bible? Do you know how the words of dozens of free human authors, each with their own insights and faults, constitute the very words of God? What book are you going to write that will shape the world? Do you indeed know what my purposes are for each passage, and why I have written what has been written?”

We did indeed utter what we did not understand. Our attempts to synthesize the Bible into a coherent model fall to pieces in the presence of the author Himself. We find ourselves immersed in His story, being shaped by our feisty struggle in ways we never imagined. With the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, we gasp in marvel:
What a book is the Holy Scripture, what miracle, what power are given to man with it! Like a carven image of the world, and of man, and of human characters, and everything is named and set forth unto ages of ages.

A wonderful posting. I especially like your adaptation of God's words to Job out of the whirlwind. And we think, sometimes, we've got it! That's surely when we don't have it, at all.


If the Bible is not inerrant (at least in the original manuscripts, and certainly in its teachings, history, and "science"), then on what basis do we pick and choose where it is correct, and where it is in error? Perhaps our difficulty with some of the actions God took in the Old Testament is due to our own human, limited, non-omniscient sense of justice.

Hi Douglas,

Not sure how deep you care to get into this - whether this was just a passing comment or if you want a real discussion. But I'll answer and see what happens.

First of all - I am not in the business of arguing for the "errancy" of the Bible, as if the Bible should be a different book than it is. On the contrary, I believe it to be the work of God (albeit through free human agents) and that it is precisely the Bible he wants us to have. So I'm not at all in the interest of doing a Jeffersonian "pick-and-choose" scheme - discarding parts I find troubling or incredible, and keeping the parts I like.

But I do take issue with any hermeneutic that defends the inerrancy of scripture by disengaging it. I have problems when, come across with an obvious tension or contradiction, people reconcile it by making the Bible out to be saying something its not. I think it far better to then ask the question, "What is God trying to say to us through this contradiction?", and a slavish loyalty to inerrancy as a doctrine makes that question unaskable.

Take, for instance, the notion that God "will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." My argument is that we need not suppress the idea that punishing someone for something his parents did is unjust. And lo and behold, the Bible agrees! "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die." My contention is that we shouldn't blunt either passage by trying to make it say something less than it is, but rather be asking what God wants to teach us through this tension.

Basically, I am arguing that, though the Bible is the inspired word of God, we cannot always assume we know what God is doing with any particular passage. Our best bet is to read the entire thing, and suppress quick-fix answers to troubling parts, opting instead to wrestle with it head on. I am convinced that we will be doing exactly what God wants us to do with his word.

I just put a link to this post in a blogpost of my own. Thanks for your wise words.

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