I’m sometimes asked how I can trust the Bible when it (particularly the “Old Testament”) includes so many harsh laws and horrific stories, many of which claim divine sanction. Is a God of love and goodness truly consistent with a Bible that include such atrocities? In fact, too many Christians do seem to be inconsistent on this point, claiming that morality is “absolute” in the present day, but then becoming curiously relativistic when it comes to our own scriptures. They will happily accuse moral relativists of trivializing the holocaust, while simultaneously trivializing the genocides in the Bible itself (such as that described in Numbers 31, to name just one abhorrent example). Even the most horrific biblical commands are sometimes claimed to have been right and moral “back then,” by people who otherwise claim to reject moral relativism.
The problem, as I see it, is that texts like these are generally glossed over or ignored by those who seem to wish the Bible were a monolithic work of systematic theology. Ironically, the common insistence that the Bible is “literally true” on every point leads to some quite improbably non-literal interpretations (like the claim that the conquest of Canaan is just a “metaphor” for spiritual warfare). It is little surprise then that many critics reject such obfuscations as ridiculous, and I must agree that such unquestioning trust in the Bible is misguided.
But the curious thing is that this view of the Bible is not actually biblical. Yes, there are passages which speak of the truth and inspiration of God’s word (and I believe them—the Bible truly is inspired), but they certainly don’t require that Christians treat it as a collection of unquestionable propositions, as too many do. For instance, only one verse in the Bible makes any claims about the nature of “all scripture,” and it falls far short of claiming inerrancy: 2 Timothy 3:16 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Whatever “breathed out by God” means (the Greek word is theopneustos, translated “inspired” in other versions, and occurs no where else in the Bible, but in the early church it was also used to describe both scripture and non-scriptural orthodox texts), this verse merely claims that scripture is “profitable” (ōphelimos; which could also be translated “useful,” “beneficial” or “valuable,” but certainly not “inerrant”) for teaching and moral correction. The goal of scripture, according to the following verse, is not that we would be provided with a perfectly accurate knowledge of science, history, or even theology, but that we would be “equipped for every good work.”
Though there are other texts which claim “God’s word” or “the law” is “perfect” or “unbreakable,” such can only be applied to the whole of what we now call scripture by inference (and of course it would be entirely circular to appeal to such texts to “prove” themselves). Inerrancy, then, is a theological construct that is applied to the Bible, not a necessary conclusion from the Bible, and it too often obscures the fact that the Bible itself, upon inspection, is the product of a long process of writing and rewriting, debate and disagreement. The Bible is full of texts which take up previous biblical ideas and modify, extend, or call them into question. For instance, if you read Exodus through Deuteronomy as they now stand, you will find chapter after chapter of regulations concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, all claimed to have been commanded by God shortly after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Yet the prophet Jeremiah, writing several centuries later, attributes the following to God in 7:22, “in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (many modern translations, such as the NIV, add “just” after the highlighted terms, but there is no basis for this in the Hebrew).
Now there are only a handful of possible explanations for such a text (other than positing, without evidence, a scribal error): 1. Jeremiah was unaware of the Mosaic legislation, and so was mistaken about what God commanded at the Exodus; 2. What we now call “the Law of Moses” was not yet (fully) written by the time Jeremiah was speaking and/or; 3. Jeremiah knew of sacrificial regulations that were attributed to Moses, but disputed their divine origin or wanted to make a point (perhaps through hyperbole) that such regulations were misunderstood.
In all probability, the truth lies in some combination of all three. Jeremiah almost certainly was not aware of all that we call the Law of Moses, because not all of it had yet been written (though some of it had). More basically, in criticizing the corruption and injustice he saw amongst those in his own day who claimed loyalty to the sacrificial regulations of the Jerusalem Temple, it is very likely that Jeremiah was questioning whether such cultic practices deserved the divine approval claimed for them. In short, not only does this text provide direct evidence of the developmental nature of scripture, but it is also an instance of explicit disagreement between biblical authors.
But here’s the key point: Jeremiah’s purpose does not appear to have been to reject the Law of Moses as false (remember, it didn’t even exist in the form we now have it). His point, as the rest of the chapter makes clear, was to convince his contemporaries that injustice and oppression of the poor are far more serious matters than adherence to the Jerusalem Temple. In order to shock his contemporaries out of their self-destructive complacency, Jeremiah here proves himself so passionately committed to justice and faithfulness to God that he is willing to call into question the Temple and the Mosaic law themselves to make that point. And he was right to do so. At that time, Israelite society was corrupt and heading towards disaster. Within a few years, Jerusalem would be wiped off the map by the Babylonians, her Temple destroyed, and her people exiled.
Jeremiah was right, but to make his point—indeed to remain faithful to God—he was willing to question scripture itself. This, I must insist, gives us a picture not of a static and “eternal” Bible that must be accepted without question, but a text whose very tensions and “contradictions” challenge our complacency and pseudo-piety, forcing us ever and anew to face the God it claims to reveal. To trust the Bible then, means not to maintain a slavish conformity to an eternally unchangeable set of Truths, but to carry forward its calls to faith and justice into our own situations, with renewed creativity and passion.
Nor is this an isolated example. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is constantly alluding to or citing previous scriptures to make new points, correct old ones, or extend them into new situations. For instance, during the Babylonian Exile, someone composed a rather unflattering history of the Israelite monarchy, which we now know as 1 and 2 Kings. After the return from exile, another group rewrote that history in a more positive (and Priestly) light, and that work is known as 1 and 2 Chronicles. Both works, presenting alternative (and often conflicting) interpretations of the very same history of Israel, were included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, with no official attempt at harmonization. Clearly those who wrote and collected the Bible did not share our modern obsession with consistency, or at least they considered it less important than the truth they found in these texts, tensions and all.
Such examples could be extended ad nauseam, all of which suggests that Christian scripture presents something far more like an engaging debate about the nature of God and God’s activity in history than a settled and permanent record of True Propositions. Therefore when someone points out to me that scripture describes some terrible things, I don’t feel any need to defend those things as “right” in our or even their own time. Perhaps the people who committed them believed they were following God’s will, perhaps God even commanded them for reasons that I can’t begin to comprehend, but nothing in the Bible demands that I accept that. Rather, the Bible presents me with an authentic portrait of humanity, and humanity has committed some truly awful deeds, many in the name of God.
To trust the Bible, then, does not mean believing it without question, but interacting with it, questioning it, reflecting its claims off of each other and our continuing experience, but, ultimately, letting it transform us. For despite what some seem to think, the horrific parts of the Bible, like the horrific parts of life, are not given the last word. The Bible places far more emphasis on laws which promote love and community; it highlights prophets who bravely condemned God’s own people when they clung to dead rituals and pious platitudes while ignoring justice and mercy; it tells the story of a God who loves the unlovable and constantly takes us back when we rebel; it even incorporates psalms and wisdom literature which question God’s own justice and faithfulness. But above all, it points to Jesus Christ, who calls us to self-sacrificing love as the only true and final answer to the evil we find in both the world and in the Bible, and who himself demonstrated the power and divinity of self-sacrifice through his death. To trust the Bible is to trust that God, not without question, but in the midst of our questions.