Friday, January 18, 2008

The Bible Tells Me So: The Old Testament

Last week, I wrote about trying to find a spiritually mature way to take the Bible seriously without taking it completely literally.

So, let's think about what this could possibly mean for the Old Testament. Wait, before we do that, a few disclaimers. I am not a Biblical scholar. I took Bible classes everyday in college at Lipscomb University for 4 years, but things like this weren't really discussed. I'm a neophyte who's thinking off the top of my head and I could be way off base here.

Ok. Let's start at the beginning. I talked last year about how when someone asks you how old the earth is, they're really asking what you think of the Bible. But let's just take for a second that the Biblical account of creation is mythical and the current scientific understandings about the beginning of life and the universe is closer to correct. What does that mean for a Christian? Well for some, it means that the rest of the Bible isn't trustworthy. If that one part is wrong or incorrect, it means that the whole thing collapses. For someone else, what it could mean is that the author of Genesis was reflecting the understandings of his (or her) time and assuming God's action in that. Did they believe it? Probably, but that doesn't preclude it from being scientifically incorrect. Now, should we put our complete "faith" in scientific understanding? No, but one thing that science does is allow the possibility of saying, "I don't know." Scientists don't know what caused the presumed "Big Bang;" they don't know what sparked proteins to come together to start the cycle of life. And to me, that leaves open the possibility of God's action in that.

That one is one that a lot of people have thought about. But another piece of the OT that I've thought a lot about are God's commands to Joshua in the same named book to completely annihilate the Canaanites. He tells them to utterly destroy them: men, women, and children (Joshua 8). I really have two issues with this: 1) it seems to go against the God is Love declarative in 1 John; 2) it makes God seem like a racist and "bad." Why would he direct the destruction of children? So, what if what we're reading is the writing of someone who is inserting God and an understanding of His word into their actions. Basically giving His sanction to the actions that they're doing. Telling history from their perspective. Someone once said, "You can be sure that you've created God in your own image when He hates the same people that you do." Was that going on here with the Israelites?

Now what that opens me up to is someone saying, "But Phil, aren't you just trying to explain away the parts that you don't understand or don't agree with to fit into your understanding?" Well, maybe, but the alternative is taking a view of a God inconsistent from the New Testament God, and that's a dangerous road to consider, in my mind.

Yes, I realize I'm opening a can of worms, playing with fire, insert cliche here. But if I'm being honest with my thoughts and my faith, this is what I have to do and questions I have to ask and try to come to some resolution on.

Next Friday, the New Testament and why I tend to take it quite a bit more literally than the Old.


Brent said...

Phil, I am one of those who sees the entire bible begin to fall like a row of dominoes when early Genesis is seen as myth. I feel that it is more because of the myth of "The Fall" than it is with the myth of creation by God.

The idea that the earth was created perfect and was corrupted by mankind runs throughout the entire bible. This concept begins in early Genesis and is presented by the story of "The Fall." When you have a fallen mankind, you need to have reconciliation and redemption.

Many of the sciences, especially evolutionary psychology, have taught us that chaos, disorder, and destruction are components to the way the universe operates. It is not a result of eating forbidden fruit. Death is not something that did not exist before the fall. Suns needed to collapse or fall into black holes, trees needed to drop seeds that germinated after death, animals needed to eat plants and one another in order to survive, cells needed to multiply and later die in order to continue onward in the form of life.

The story of the fall is myth. It is a wonderful myth that expresses "truths" that we observe in our world. However, it is not a historical telling of what happened.

This makes passages like 1 Timothy 2:12-15 even more ludicrous:

"I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."

DB Carden said...

"The story of the fall is myth. It is a wonderful myth that expresses "truths" that we observe in our world. However, it is not a historical telling of what happened."

By definition, early Genesis is myth (sacred story that conveys truth). I think it is key to take myth for what it is and not try to ascribe historicity to it, as Christians have done with early Genesis.

jonmower said...


I also see the two difficult subjects you raised as being fundamentally different and the conquest of Canaan (vs creation story) as the much more difficult one.

The creation story doesn't claim and isn't intended to be a scientific account. And whether you have 13 billion years of randomness or God speaking, either way you're talking about something that is essentially unfathomable and could not be described in scientific detail by the author of Genesis. I believe the creation story is true but I doubt it should be understood in the traditional way.

On the other hand, the account of the conquest of Canaan, for example, seems to clearly to be intended as history. It seems obvious to me that Jesus and his disciples considered the OT to be reliable history. If I start discounting stories because they seem to me to me to be inconsistent with "God is love", then what do I do with the story of Noah, of Annanias and Saphira in the NT, and of the occasions where Jesus himself emphasizes the punishment/justice/wrath nature of God in addition to love? Admittedly, I'm tempted to discount the fantastical stories of the OT like plagues, sun standing still, Jonah being swallowed by a great fish and living to tell it, etc. But, apparently Jesus believed the story of Jonah. And fantastical stories of Jesus miracles are a crucial part of the NT story. Why should I believe one but not the other?

I think I tend to feel like brent in that the whole of the Bible is much too interdependent to continue to stand firm as we dismantle it starting in the OT. In a separate comment I'll reproduce a list of examples I made in the discussion on Scott Freeman's blog that convince me that Jesus and his disciples considered the OT to be reliable, and not just reliable as themes but as history. If it isn't reliable in that sense, then why would Jesus and his disciples treat it that way?

In fact, I find passages and concepts throughout the Bible that challenge what I would humbly call my simplistic and one-dimensional view of God...and still my faith remains. As I continue to struggle with things like this, my inclination is to assume that the deficiency lies primarily with my own personal limitations in understanding God and limitations in how God through his Spirit could describe himself in scripture rather than questioning the fundamental reliability of scripture itself.

jonmower said...

As if it isn't clear already, like Phil I'm also an amateur and a hobbyist, so I ask the professionals to bear with me. Here are some notes that in my opinion establish a pretty clear picture about how Jesus and his disciples considered the OT as reliable in a historical sense. I have a hard time seeing how I can harmonize being his disciple myself while diverging broadly from this apparent view of the OT. Let me emphasize that I'm open to considering deviations from inerrancy as it has typically been taught and that my faith is in Jesus, not whether any single particular verse that we have is pristine as dictated by God. I also distinguish between questioning my understanding of any particular verse or doctrine and questioning the general reliability of scripture.

begin notes:

Not only is there no hint from the NT writers and the words of Jesus that they record that the OT is unreliable, there is much positive evidence that they considered it reliable. Here are a few examples that occur to me at the moment…there are many others.

- Multiple citations of fulfilled prophecy related to Jesus in the gospels, I won’t bother to cite them all, if you haven’t spent much time in the NT lately, I suggest that’s a good place to start
- Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 (as recorded by Luke) quotes a passage from Joel (identifying its fulfillment in the events on Pentecost) and quotes David twice in passages he applies to Jesus
- (As recorded by Luke) Peter quotes David in Acts 4:8 and Peter and John quote David in Acts 4:25-26 describe David’s words as being God speaking “…by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David”
- In Acts 7 Stephen (as recorded by Luke) recounts many of the stories of the OT as facts from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to Joshua to David to Solomon, quoting specifically from Amos and Isaiah…including God’s promise to “punish” the nation that enslaves Abraham’s descendants and a description of the conquest of the “promised land” (lots there for me to be uncomfortable about) as God driving the nations out from the land before them
- The Hebrew writer in chapter 11 cites the stories of Cain/Abel, Enoch (and his miraculous exit), Noah, Abraham/Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, the miracles in Egypt including the death of the firstborn, the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of Jericho, Rahab, “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets”; and every chapter of Hebrews quotes directly from the OT including (Psalms, Samuel, Chronicles, and Deuteronomy in ch 1), (Psalms and Isaiah in ch 2), (Psalms in ch 3), (Psalms and Genesis in ch 4), (Psalms in ch 5), (Genesis in ch 6), (Psalms in ch 7), (Exodus and Jeremiah in ch 8), (Exodus in ch 9), (Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Habbakuk in ch 10), (Genesis in ch 11), (Proverbs, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Haggai in ch 12), (Deuteronomy and Psalms in ch 13)
- In Galatians 3 alone, Paul quotes from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Habbakuk, and Leviticus. In verse 16 of that chapter, he bases his argument on the fact that a word (”seed”) in Genesis is singular rather than plural (even though Paul didn’t have the original manuscripts either)
- What was Jesus view of the OT? Do a search of the gospels for “it is written” and you’ll see how often Jesus quoted the OT scriptures, often citing prophesies about himself (don’t limit the search to the gospels and you’ll see Paul use the phrase many times to introduce OT quotes in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians). In Matthew 12 Jesus quotes from Hosea and Isaiah and quotes a story about David from 1 Sam 21 as fact. Look at Luke 24:44-49…Jesus says that “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” before he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. Look at Mark 12:18-27 where Jesus criticizes the Sadducees for their lack of knowledge regarding OT scripture and makes a point about the resurrection by quoting a passage from Exodus 3.
- In 2 Tim. 3, in reference to OT scripture Paul claims that all scripture is God-breathed

This is of course not an exhaustive list as there are many other examples of OT quotes in the NT.

Thomas+ said...

How do you define goodness? Traditional Christianity defines goodness in this way: God is Good. Therefore, whatever God says or does is, by definition, good. So if God kills a bunch of pagans to make way for Israel, then this is good.

Can you go kill pagans? No, because God expressly commands you not to. You are not Joshua. So, if you kill a pagan in the name of God, that is not good.

Is that emotionally satisfying? Hell no. But being a Christian is kind of like being married. I may not like everything about my spouse, and I might not agree with everything she does, but I love her and don't want to be with anyone else. I feel that way about God, especially when I read the Joshua-type texts.

I love God and I'm sticking with him. He's the Light, and the only Light I've got. The only Light the world has, too.


Phil said...

OK, but here's the thing, Thomas+. That call to basically genocide is directly contradictory to God's call to love our enemies through Jesus. Wouldn't there need to be some level of consistency? And if not, why not?

Tony Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Arnold said...

"I love God and I'm sticking with him. He's the Light, and the only Light I've got. The only Light the world has, too."

I am in agreement with Thomas. For me and my house, we will stand with God.

I cannot resolve all the mysteries nor questions that are presented, but don't have to either. I consider myself a man of science by education and former profession. I did not have to understand everything about the universe to trust the bulk of former scientific understanding, even though some of that understanding turned out to be wrong and needed correction. I am confident that the same is true with those parts of science still held to be true. Some of it will be corrected or proven wrong in the future. But I don't throw out all of science or math because of contradictions or wrongness that exists. The overall truth of math and science works in the majority of applications.

I see no reason to treat scripture differently and have found the vast majority of scripture to be of benefit to my life and my fellowman.


Brian said...

God has always been on the side of the victor - in any war, in any country throughout history. Even the modern day crusader, G W Bush believes he has God on his side. Perhaps Joshua was the same (as the rest of history - not Bush!)

I wonder why we humans need to justify our warring actions by playing the God card?

john alan turner said...

This is a tough subject to be sure, but this is one of the reasons why good, methodical scholarship is so very important. There are deep theological and historical things afoot here, and it would be foolish to dismiss those things and throw the baby of inspiration out with the bathwater of wooden literalism.

It's also essential that we guard ourselves against any sort of chronological snobbery here, assuming that we are somehow superior to previous generations who saw now inconsistency between God as he presents himself in both testaments of the Bible.

Now, having prefaced my comments thusly, I'll do my best to briefly offer some things for consideration.

First, we must look back to Genesis 15:16 and try to discern how that cryptic message figures into God's judgment on the Canaanites.

Second, these people who occupied the Promised Land were barbaric. They routinely sacrificed their women and children to their gods -- and that in times of peace. Throughout the OT God begins dealing with people where they are and leads them to better places and actions.

Third, the story of the Bible at this point is primarily concerned with the purifying of the Hebrew people. Judges shows us that the people failed in purging the pagan influences and suffered terribly as a result.

Finally, God's mercy is still present in the story. Anyone who turns to him is saved -- even pagans like Rahab or the Gibeonites.

Now, taken one at a time, none of these factors provides a full answer. But taken together they might help.

Rob Cox said...

I just want to say that I appreciate the way everyone is keeping the discussion civil. This topic could easily lead to an emotional, defensive debate but it hasn't here. It's refreshing. I'm looking forward to reading more about this next Friday.

jonmower said...

Phil asked:

"That call to basically genocide is directly contradictory to God's call to love our enemies through Jesus. Wouldn't there need to be some level of consistency? And if not, why not?"

I guess the way I can rationalize it is that sometimes God exercises immediate judgment (like with Ananias and Saphira) and the inhabitants of Canaan...and sometimes his judgment is delayed. This is different from me taking it upon myself to exercise God's judgment.

Thomas+ said...

Jonmower and JAT are saying good stuff. So I will not repeat them.

This is the thing I was trying to get at in my earlier post. Descartes told me that I think therefore I AM. In this way of thinking, I am the center of the universe. I get to define love, goodness, and justice. If the Bible says God does something I don't consider loving, then he didn't do it, or I am morally superior to him.

My position is that God is the I AM. He is the center. He is Love, so whatever he does is loving. I may not like it, but my objection shouldn't be to the Bible text. It should be to the God of Israel, who is the same in the NT as the OT.

The love that caused the death of the Egyptians and the Canaanites is the same love that caused the death of his son on my behalf. What, am I to accept the death of the world's only innocent man as just (because I benefit from it) but argue with the death of the Canaanites?

I may not like the things that God does, but that doesn't mean he has changed, or that he didn't do them. My challenge is to accept God for who he says he is, or find a different god, or make up a new one. The latter two options are very popular today, as they have always been.

Chris said...

In the beginning (before the first day when God said 'let there be light')(before time as we know it)
God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form an empty waste and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
The Holy Spirit of God brooded upon the waters ( we all know that brooding takes some time eg. emu's hatching out eggs take longer than sparrows hatching out eggs)God only knows how long it took to hatch out the plans for his creation.

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