There’s an origin story in the first book of the Bible about how humanity got its different languages and were spread across the earth. Although it only takes up nine verses of real estate in scripture, it’s a fairly well known narrative.
As the story goes, the whole earth had one language and as everyone migrated east, they settled in the land of Shinar. It was there they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3-4, NRSV).
Then, apparently, God showed up to check this tower out. He said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language…Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7, NRSV).
The story goes on and ends to say that God scattered them over the earth and the city was called Babel because he confused their language.
What an interesting story.
At a first glance, it might seem that all this narrative has to do with is how we got our different languages and were spread across the earth, but there’s a whole lot more going on here.
This story took place a few hundred years after the flood story (you know the one, with Noah and the ark and animals walking two-by-two) and humanity had begun to repopulate. They all spoke the same language and understood one another. The people before the flood were self-serving, violent and did not obey the law. The people after the flood, however, were much more unified and community focused – not just caring for themselves, but each other.
But their unity and organization became too strong for their own good. It made them proud. And since these are ancient times, when people believed heaven to be just above the clouds, they decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens so they could be like God, remain self-sufficient and stay together.
My “tower” used to be the Bible.
I thought if I read it enough I would have all the ingredients to be just like Jesus. I thought if I believed it enough I could be certain about everything. And I thought if there were enough people out there who read it just like me, there would always be someone to validate my “correct” interpretations of the text.
This got very exhausting.
Despite my Free Methodist upbringing (which I’m thankful for, but emphasized entire sanctification or christian perfection), I now believe it’s more important for me to NEED Jesus rather than to be LIKE Jesus. I’m not saying my morals don’t matter. I’m saying that I’m broken and I’m in need of a savior and because of what Jesus did, my response is to give away what has been given to me: love, grace, forgiveness, mercy, compassion and hope.
It’s also hard to be certain of anything when reading the Bible for many, many reasons.
First of all, it’s packed with contradictions. And the contradictions start really early. I’m talking first-chapter-of-Genesis early:
In one place it says God created light on the first day, in another it says it was the fourth.
In one place it says God created trees before man, in another it says after.
In one place it says God created birds before man, in another it says after.
In one place it says God created animals before man, in another it says after.
In one place it says God created man and women at the same time, in another it says man was created before woman.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. And the contradictions don’t stop in Genesis. There are thousands of them throughout scripture:
In one place it says the law is possible to keep, in another it says it’s impossible.
In one place it says 23,000 died in a plague, in another it says 24,000.
In one place it says Solomon had 40,000 horses, in another it says 4,000.
In one place it says there were 28 generations from David to Jesus, in another it says 43.
In one place it says that an angel spoke to Joseph, in another it says Mary.
In one place it says that the women entered the tomb, in another it says they did not.
In one place it says Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, in another it says he did.
Genesis 1 and science also seem to be at odds. According to Genesis, earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old. According to science (which provides evidence), earth is over 4.5 billion years old. Genesis 1 also describes things like trees being created before the sun, which we now know would be scientifically impossible for survival.
Again, I could go on and on.
Then there’s the problem of the violence of God in the Bible. At least it was a problem for me.
Did God ACTUALLY send a flood to wipe out everyone on the planet except for one family who behaved?
Did God REALLY tell the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman and child in Jericho?
Also, according to the Bible, God seems to be ok with slavery, ok with women being second class citizens and not ok with interracial marriages, not ok with homosexuality.
This is tough stuff. It’s enough to make an atheist. It almost happened to me.
But then I realized that atheists and fundamentalists actually have a lot in common. They both read the Bible the same way – entirely literal. The only difference is that the atheist denies the whole thing and the fundamentalist believes it.
Is there another way to view scripture and read the Bible that’s still orthodox?
Can a Christian, just like most Jews, believe that the creation story in Genesis is perhaps a beautiful allegory that has deeper truth, despite it not being actual history?
Could God be behind the big bang and evolution?
Do the contradictions really matter and are they grounds for saying that none of it actually happened?
Did God really say all the things the writers said he did or could some of them be mistaken based on their limited and cultural understanding of who/what God was?
Is God really ok/not ok with some of the things the writers say he is/isn’t and are we still catching up?
Let me pause for a second.
If these questions make you uncomfortable because the way you read the Bible is already working for you…I won’t blame you if you stop reading.
The purpose of me writing this isn’t to change the mind of someone who is already content with their framework for reading and interpreting scripture.
The purpose of me writing this is to encourage those who are struggling deeply with what the Bible is, what it says and what that means.
This is why I’ll never have the creation vs. evolution debate with anyone whose current beliefs are working for them. I refuse. I can’t think of anything more pointless (well, perhaps debating the inerrancy of scripture is a lot more pointless, but we’ll get to that later).
However, if someone comes to me and says, “I’d be totally open to believing in a Divine Being, but I believe in the big bang and I know that’s a deal breaker” or “I’m a person of faith, but I love science and the more I’m learning, the more I see it contradicting the Bible”, THEN i will talk with you all day. THAT is an interesting conversation.
So then, what is the Bible?
Here are some definitions I heard growing up:
Terms and conditions agreement.
Now let me share with you another definition of the Bible from Kent Dobson, which I love:
“The Bible is like Van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers, rather than a Wikipedia entry about sunflowers. It is not a science book. It will not tell you what to believe in order to make God happy. It is more likely to show you what faith does than define what it is. The Bible is a work of art, a collection of stories, histories, poems, flawed characters and beautiful songs. Art is meant to work on us and to wake us up to our own lives. The Bible works on our hidden depths, hopes, and dreams, pushes our buttons and exposes our illusions. What does it mean to be human? What is God like? Why is there good or evil? Am I good enough? Is anything eternal? Is the universe sacred? The Bible asks the perennial human questions and does not always provide straightforward answers. The Bible wants us to wrestle God, which is the very meaning of “Israel.” To be human is to creatively wrestle meaning out of the chaos of our lives. The men and women who wrote the Bible, who danced with the songs and poems, were being fully human, giving artistic meaning to their human experience. The Bible’s magnificence is that it includes so much diverse experience. The bigger story of a God of love is not so evident on every page. Like life itself, the people of faith in the Bible did a lot of stumbling around, three steps forward and two steps backward, before slowly and quietly waking up to the mystery of a universal, rather than tribal God, whose essence is freedom, grace, love and mercy.”
So much better than “cookbook” right?
Here’s the thing: the Bible was written by people. As Father Richard Rohr says, it didn’t fall in a Glad bag from heaven.
It was written by real people, in real places, in real times, in real cultures, to real audiences with real agendas.
Most Christians are comfortable with the Bible being a Divine book, but the thought of it being human makes them a little uneasy.
Why? Because then it’s apparently not perfect. And if it’s not perfect, then it’s not true. And if it’s not true, then we’re all screwed.
But does perfection really have anything to do with truth?
The love I have for my wife is something I cannot explain with words, but my love for her is far from perfect. I fail to love her the way I should often. Does this mean my love for her is untrue?
Let me take it a step further.
Does something have to be entirely FACTUAL to be TRUE?
If someone asked me to explain my love for my children and I quoted writer Elizabeth Stone, who said, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”, would it mean that I literally decided one day to have my heart go walking around outside my body? Absolutely not! It’s just that this metaphor describes the truth I’m trying to convey much better than any factual information can.
Theologian Marcus Borg says, “The Bible is true and some of it actually happened.”
I couldn’t agree more.
And this is why the “is the Bible inerrant?” question is so unbelievably pointless to me. It’s more than pointless – I think it’s the wrong question completely.
Can you imagine asking Peter if his epistles were inerrant? You’d probably get a really strange look.
[Sidenote: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy wasn’t even formulated until 1978. That’s right; it’s less than 40 years old. This isn’t proof that’s it’s irrelevant, but it might be an interesting tidbit of info to share this Thanksgiving when Uncle Carl suggests it’s as old as the Bible during a family discussion.]
So how about a different angle on God’s violence in the Old Testament?
I’ll turn to American biblical scholar, theologian and writer, Dr. Peter Enns, for this one:
“The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.
When children tell the story of their father or mother, parents are typically delighted by how much they get and the childlike way that they see the world. But they are also well aware that children miss a lot when they tell the story, and invariably refract the complexities of family life through their own youthful vision.
It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but roll with it: Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their father is. They are ways of telling the story to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around.
I remember telling my middle school mates that my father was an engineer who left a
promising academic career before coming to America. He also knew a lot about guns, since he was in World War 2, and killed bad guys left and right.
That story was genuinely connected to my real father, but honor was at stake. How I told the story was dictated, unwittingly, by rules of the schoolyard.
My father was a blue-collar machinist (not engineer) who wanted to be a school teacher (not academic), but World War 2 got in the way. He was in the war, but I didn’t dare let on that he did not fight for our side. He was born in Russia, was captured by the Germans, and was forced to be a German-Russian translator (and therefore a German soldier). He also hated guns, since his community in Russia was pacifist Mennonite. But he won a turkey shoot when I was young, a fact I exaggerated and incorporated into my narrative.
But I never mentioned the many things my father did that were also heroic but not quite as exciting—like coming to all my little league games, working long hours to make sure we kept a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and cars to get around in even though money was very tight. Had I talked like that, it would have fallen on deaf ears.
When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.
That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.
Bear in mind this is only an analogy, but if we want to extend this to the New Testament, we can think of the teachings of Jesus as a more “mature” telling of God’s story. Jesus tells the story in a way that is more in line with who God is (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). Such things as land acquisition and killing and enslaving enemies is no longer part of God’s narrative.
It’s like a boy who grows up to be an adult, gets a job, and has a family of his own. Now ask him to tell his father’s story. The son’s life experiences have brought him to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of his father’s experiences, and the story will reflect that.
Now he will talk about seeing his father get up at the crack of quarter before light to trudge off to work, come home late in smelly and filthy machinist clothes, and then on the weekends build his son a fort, or renovate the basement, or sometimes just crash on the couch.
Both narratives, the child’s and the adult’s, are expressions of love. But now the less heroic acts become the more heroic and dominate story, the things the grown son is truly proud of and wants to tell others. And this story reflects the real thing more closely, with greater three-dimensional depth.”
Enns unpacks this issue further and many others in his book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, which I seriously can’t recommend enough.
Shedding my former views on what scripture is was scary. In a way, it’s easier to believe the Bible in a literal sense, to believe everything was passed down without error and that it did fall in a Glad bag from heaven. That way it’s air tight and there’s no room for argument. It is what it is. But God allows his children to tell his story. It’s messy and it’s beautiful. It’s simple and it’s complex. It’s Divine and it’s human. It’s the greatest art project ever. Full of paradoxes and mysteries. And it requires a lot of faith to wrestle and engage with it.
It also requires a lot of faith to disengage from it.
Not disengage from reading it, but disengage from having more faith in it than we should. After all, the Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. My faith is not in the Bible, my faith is in Jesus.
One thing that the evangelicals have done is taught that reading the Bible and praying are the only credible ways to have a real, meaningful relationship with God. This is simply untrue. After all, Abraham didn’t have a leather bound KJV under his arm.
I just took an hour break from writing to sit outside in the backyard alone to look at the sky. Right now, the Moon, Venus, Mars and Saturn are all clearly visible and I can’t describe in words the experience I just had.
One of my favorite ways to experience the Divine is in a comedy club. There’s almost nothing like it for me: a few hundred people from different backgrounds, races, religions, political beliefs, all laughing at the same thing. It’s beautiful. It’s there that I experience the image of God.
Reading the Bible and praying are certainly great ways to engage with the Divine, but who are we to say they’re always the best ways in every single moment? Sometimes a really beautiful film that captures the human struggle connects me with the Divine way more than reading through Leviticus. Or is it just me?
What about hiking?
Or climbing a mountain?
Walking on a beach at sunset?
A transcendent song?
A mysterious painting?
A stunning photograph?
A sporting event?
If we believe the Divine to be big, surely she/he can connect with us through infinite avenues and sources.
My tower of Bibles was built sky high. I prided myself in my knowledge of scripture and what it meant. I had more faith in my interpretations than I did in Jesus and I only respected people who agreed with me.
Thankfully, God gave me a new language to describe the Bible and what it is. And now I love reading it more than I ever have.