I lament both the lack of knowledge about the Bible in our culture and the various ways in which it is misused within so many churches and in secular society. On one side, we have fundamentalist Christians who insist on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. On the opposite side, we have those outside the church with no religious commitment who dismiss the Bible as violent, oppressive, primitive, and contentious. Both groups routinely miss the messages within Scripture.
Those advocating inerrancy and infallibility try desperately (but with no success) to defend their assumptions. They use what I call “pretzel logic” which is so twisted that no person capable of reason can accept their arguments. Those totally dismissive of Scripture, like the so-called “new atheists,” have never bothered to take the time to understand the dynamics and nature of these ancient texts, much less their backgrounds and intentions.
For example, how does one interpret those passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which portray God commanding the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child of their enemies? Fundamentalist Christians cannot harmonize this view of God with the teachings and example of Jesus. Those critical of the faith see such Old Testament passages as illustrative of the cruel and violent nature of a tribal god who is no more than the reflection of the prejudices and desires of a primitive people. Ironically, both groups make the same error: that of assuming the Bible claims to be the infallible, inerrant Word of God. Fundamentalists embrace this claim while the new atheists seek to reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions which disprove the claim but, in the process, “pour the baby out with the bathwater.”
After spending the last fifty-four years studying and teaching the Bible, I have concluded that the Bible contains testimonies by fallible human beings within their cultural contexts to the perceived presence and actions of God. God is present in the lives and histories of these people, but God can reveal only as much of the Divine Self as people are prepared and willing to accept. Consequently, there are both human and divine elements within the Bible. God’s Word comes through broken, clay vessels. We must have the maturity and integrity to discern God’s truth amid these human limitations. Such a process involves loving God with our minds as well as our hearts. If God and truth are indivisible, wherever we find truth, we find God. Authentic people of faith need not fear reason and enquiry. Indeed, often our faith can deepen only through such questioning provided we have the discipline, openness, and patience to pursue those questions. We are not required to have an “intellectual lobotomy” to be Christian.
Psalm 137 provides a good example of the kind of discernment we need in interpreting the Bible. The psalm was written during the Babylonian Exile when the elites of Judah were taken to Babylon as prisoners of war. They yearned for the good old days when Judah had a king, a temple, territory, and independence. As elites, they had enjoyed the corrupt and exploitative system which characterized the Davidic kingdom. Their world had “gone with the wind,” but like defeated southerners after the Civil War, they wallowed in nostalgia wanting to return to their old ways of life. Resenting the ways their enemies mocked them, they nursed their anger and impotence as a defeated people. Psalm 137 records their lamentations and ends with these words regarding what these exiles wanted the Babylonians to suffer: “Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your littles ones and dashes them against the rock!”
Out of a desire for revenge, the psalmist looks forward to the day when Babylon’s enemies will grab Babylonian babies by their ankles and dash their brains on rocks. Anyone with an ounce of compassion or morality could never justify such cruelty. And yet, there it is in the Bible. Granted, God is not the one speaking in this psalm, but both groups mentioned above see this psalm as part of the Bible, the purported Word of God. Even apart from this song, we have God commanding the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites killing every man, woman, child, and domestic animal (as I mentioned above). Did God’s character change between the 6th century BCE and the 1st century CE—between the psalmist and Jesus who said we are to love our enemies and thus become children of God who loves Her enemies (Matthew 5:43-48}? Or do we see examples of human weakness and sin some of the writers of the Bible project onto their God?
The Bible contains human and divine words, human and divine intentions, human and divine logic. Often the Bible reveals as much about us as it does about God. As I have said elsewhere, the Bible is both a window (sometimes, a smudged window) through which we can see God and a mirror in which we can see in ourselves the good, the bad, and the ugly. If as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, then we should not be surprised if parts of the Bible (dare I say, even parts of the New Testament) are not reconcilable with his life, message, death, and resurrection.
Viewing the Bible in this dual manner will help free us from having to believe in a schizophrenic god who can both love deeply and viciously murder children on a whim. Yes, it will be more difficult to interpret the Bible if we are mature enough to accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is not infallible and inerrant. But we will be more likely to understand the true meanings behind the text. And in doing so, we will join our spiritual forebears throughout the ages who had to live by faith and not by “sight.” Even the Apostle Paul said that we see only a dim reflection of the whole truth of God (I Corinthians 13:12). We all walk by trust based on a person, not a book, much less a human-made doctrine regarding Scripture. And that human incarnation of God reveals that, above all else, God is self-giving love.
David Hayward is a pastor who became a cartoonist (nakedpastor.com). In one of his cartoons, there is a group of people clutching their Bibles. Jesus says to them, “The difference between me and you is you use Scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what Scripture means.” As John Dominic Crossan says, “Jesus trumps the Bible.” Why? Because for Christians, JESUS IS THE WORD!
(Examples of the genocide Israel conveniently assumed God commanded can be found in Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-17a; Joshua 6:21; Numbers 31:17, and I Samuel 15:1-3. The I Samuel passage is perhaps the most obvious example of a bloodthirsty god. I have often heard these passages used by people in the church to defend war and “sanctioned violence” on the part of the United States. They were favorite texts used by early European settlers of this continent to justify their extermination of Indigenous People. Such “Christians” identified themselves as God’s “chosen people” and the native population as the sinful “Canaanites” God wanted wiped off the face of the earth.)