February 03, 2013
As a follow up to the message: “The Bible has all the answers!”
5th in the message series: “Questions for all your Answers”
This morning we ‘opened up a real can of worms’…(another overused cliché that seems to have taken on a life of it’s own when someone noticed a fisherman’s dilemma. After opening the literal can of worms, the worms began to crawl out, escape and became annoyingly unruly). That’s a pretty good definition of what we opened up this morning!
More specifically, we acknowledged the existence of …
(1) Apparent Errors and Contradictions in the Bible
(2) Difficult Rules and Laws in the Bible
and (3) the BIG QUESTION of “How a good and loving God could seem to be so cruel and vindictive (even genocidal) in the Old Testament?”
Now, I’m not going to pretend to be smarter than i am, or that i have all the answers…but here are a few possible answers to the specific passages we opened up this morning.
(1) Apparent Errors and Contradictions in the Bible
This morning we listed two specific errors or contradictions.
The first was in I Corinthians 10:8, where Paul list’s the number of those who died in one day as 23,000…while Numbers 25:9 says it was 24,000!
Some try to explain this apparent error and contradiction in the following ways:
– “Paul had a divine secret whispered into his ear, namely, that 23,000 died in one day, while the total dead were 24,000”
– or… “The true, more accurate number was 23,000 and some! It’s very unlikely it was an exact round number of 24,000 or 23,00. Paul simply rounded down and while Numbers rounded up!”
– or… “Paul, reciting the O.T. by memory, got mixed up with Numbers 26:62, the number of the male Levites a month old or more!”
– or… “It was unlikely that Paul had a written copy of Numbers with him…and if he did, it would have taken too long to cross reference the number (no iPhone apps or concordances you know). He was writing from memory…and simply made a mistake.”
– or… (some have suggested) “Paul may have been dictating the letter and the partner-scribe wrote it down wrong.”
– or… “Paul isn’t actually referring to the Numbers 25 event at all…but rather, by the inspiration of God, referring to another event. After all, Paul doesn’t say where this happened or when.”
If you believe that the Bible transmission to us needs to be in perfect, 5.1, surround-sound, HD clarity according to today’s 21st century standards…without any interference, you will have a hard time with the thought that any error could have occurred. For you, if the Bible contains one lapse or error in it’s contemporary written form, the whole thing is suspect. However, if you are more aligned with the ‘scratchy phonograph analogy’ put forward by Emil Brunner, (Our Faith, 1936)…you relax a bit as you realize that any one of these explanations is plausible…and the existence of some discrepancy doesn’t nullify Paul’s (and God’s) message, which was… “God doesn’t approve of sexual immorality!” After all, Paul wasn’t setting out to write a statistical book. He was writing a personal, pastoral, heart-felt letter to the Corinthian church…that one day would be picked up and ‘canonized’ into Scripture as it was recognized to have the fingerprint of God on it.
The SECOND apparent error/contradiction we sited was II Samuel 24:1, which says that “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census”…while I Chronicles 21:1 says it was “Satan” who provoked David to take the census.
So, which was it?
For starters, it might be helpful to consider ‘what the big deal was, anyway!’ Why was it wrong for David to take a census?
The ancient census could act as a ‘draft notice’ or a ‘mustering of troops for war’. David’s sin could have been counting those under 20 years old or, doubting God’s promises, or that it was an act of presumptuous pride and arrogance. It may be as simple as God knowing the motivations of David’s heart were not pure.
As for the contradiction, Sydney Dosh, Jr offers these possible explanation:
You can, on your own, develop questions which will having meaning to you in understanding this apparent problem in the text. However, in developing your thoughts please bear in mind the following. The verses in question are a part of the Hebrew Scriptures (Christianity calls them the Old Testament) and must be viewed in light of Hebraic concepts. Thus the concept of Satan as presented in the New Testament cannot be carried backward and imposed upon the Hebrew Scriptures.
From a Hebrew perspective there is no independent supernatural power, co‑equal with God. To the Hebrew, God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Everything emanates from God, both good and evil. There is nothing that is not in His power or subject to His control. He dispenses both mercy and justice.
With these last thoughts in mind we can understand that although it is probably not possible for the Chronicler to consider Satan and God as one and the same, this does not mean that the writer would not have considered Satan to be an instrument of God to “provoke” David. This view is supported by several commentators who insist that God allowed this as a test to prove David’s character.
The second possibility, substituting Satan for God was considered a valid option. Ezra, the accepted writer of Chronicles, was a priest. Although much of the prophetic literature contains notions of God manifesting Himself in the form of angelic beings, this concept was avoided in the priestly literature. There was an attempt on the part of the priests to eliminate any concept of mediatory beings of a divine nature. There was no provision for God to come to earth. God was holy and He would not come to the profane, rather it was the profane that was in need of holiness in order to achieve union with God in His abode.
Thus it is possible that Ezra found the idea of God in the role of an evil adversary as repugnant. Many commentators agree that this substitution of the word “satan” into the text of Chronicles is a clear example of the way in which Ezra felt comfortable in modifying a part of the source text which presented unacceptable ways of speaking of God and Israel’s past.
The third possibility deals with currents that were in operation during the time of the writing of Chronicles that would have influenced the use of the word “satan” to mean an individual evil entity. In support of this idea we must realize that this period was the period of return from exile in Babylon. For seventy years the people had labored under the control of the Persians. Within the Persian religious system a fully developed system of worship was in place that recognized two gods, one evil and one good. These gods were constantly interfering in the life of man, seeking to influence him toward their own purposes.
It is indeed possible that Ezra was influenced by these years of association with this culture and decided to “correct” the source text to coincide with his new system of belief. Although this line of reasoning is possible, the record of the Hebrew Scriptures weighs heavily against it. It takes several hundred years from the time of the writing of Chronicles for the concept of dualism to develop in Judaic thought. This concept does not begin to appear until the Rabbinical writings of the 1st and 2nd Century (A.D.) expand upon the Biblical text.
i’m not sure that i gravitate to any one explanation as much as breathe a sigh of relief that there IS an explanation. When first challenged with a biblical contradiction, it’s easy to feel intimidated. However, once a person does some research and digs below the surface of the problem, many viable possibilities emerge.
(2) Difficult Rules and Laws in the Bible
This morning I read a letter that was supposedly addressed to Dr Laura. In the letter, the writer does a masterful (if not hilarious) job of calling into question the more bizarre and restrictive Biblical laws.
For the equally funny, 2004, tongue-in-cheek rebuttal and explanation, see Stephen Green’s reply at http://www.repentuk.com/laura.html
Further to this, it might be helpful to consider what goes into a reflective study of Scripture. You might want to ask these questions:
- Who wrote or spoke the words and to whom were they being written/spoken to?
- What does the passage say?
- Are the words or phrases that need more explanation?
- What is the context in which these words were being written or spoken?
- What is the broader context (in the chapter and book)?
- What is the historical and cultural context?
- Is the ‘truth’ in this passage a ‘temporary regulation/report’ or would I consider it a ‘timeless truth’ for all people and all generations?
- What do I conclude about this passage of the Bible?
- Do my conclusions seem to agree or disagree with other parts of the Bible?
- What are other’s saying this passage means?
- What have I leaned and is there a practical and personal application I need to make?
As Stephen Green notes, all of the seemingly weird and irrelevant commands posed to Dr Laura are easily and legitimately put to rest by a more thorough study of the passage.
(3) the BIG QUESTION: “How a good and loving God could seem to be so cruel and vindictive (even genocidal) in the Old Testament?”
Those who oppose the Bible are often just as judgmental, prejudice and short-sighted as many Christians! They, too, seem to want to throw stones rather than have a real, honest dialogue. So, God is judged, labeled and branded ‘genocidal’ without the accepted “innocent until proven guilty” due process.
Now, admittedly this is not my area of expertise…but here a few more possibilities or alternative ways to look at what we see in the Old Testament in terms of judgment, anger and the killing of innocent people. (Just stuff to ‘throw in the hopper’ as we honestly look for some answers).
Consideration #1: The definition of ‘genocide’ is…
…the mass murder of as many people as possible on the basis of born national, ethnic, racial or religious identity as such; with intent to eliminate the targeted group entirely and internationally; without allowing the victims any option to change views, beliefs or allegiances to save themselves
‘Genocide’ is a very loaded term that most of us understand to be motivated by hatred, racism and cruelty. It’s too easy to say God is ‘genocidal’ or ‘homophobic’ or any other label that seems to fit.
I think what is call genocide is probably more likely divine, holy judgment
Consideration #2 There is a God of love in the Old Testament
Exodus 34:6-7 (NLT)
The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.”
Jonah, in Jonah 4:2, reiterated his view of God, even to the point of being annoyed with God’s grace and love towards the ‘unbelievers’.
Jonah 4:2 (NLT)
So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.
The point here is, one certainly can’t paint the God of the Old Testament with just one, broad brush.
Consideration #3 – There is a God of Judgment in the New Testament
Many oversimplify the argument to be… “the God of the Old Testament is an angry, vengeful killer while the God of the New Testament is lenient, full of grace and non-confrontational”. This simply isn’t true.
Jesus says to the towns where he had performed many miracles, but they failed to respond to God…
Matthew 11:22 (NLT)
I tell you, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on judgment day than you.
Jesus also said…
John 3:18 (NLT)
“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.
And it says in Romans…
Romans 14:10 (NLT)
So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
There are over 70 uses of the word ‘judgment’ in the New Testament.
Consideration #4 – People were often given ample opportunity to repent and/or escape
In the case of the great flood, Genesis 6 tells of God’s frustration with the humans He had created and His plan to start over. God declared His judgment and Noah began building the ark.
God gives mankind 120 years to respond…and during this time, Noah is called (in 2 Peter 2:5) “the preacher of righteousness”. In other words, the people had plenty of time to consider their ways and change before judgment was unleashed.
Robin Schumacher, in an online article entitled… “Is the God of the Old Testament a Merciless Monster?” concludes…
…we see a distinct pattern emerging from the judgments brought by God upon various peoples:
- . God declares an annihilation form of judgment to stamp out a cancer
- . The judgments are for public recognition of extreme sin
- . Judgment is preceded by warning and/or long periods of exposure to the truth and time to repent
- . Any and all ‘innocent’ adults are given a way of escape with their families; sometimes all given a way to avoid judgment via repentance or leaving a particular region. It should also be noted that expulsion from a land was the most common judgment, not extermination. This pattern goes all the way back to the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 3:24)
- . Someone is almost always saved (redeemed) from the evil culture
- . The judgment of God falls…
It is true that the Bible contains graphic stories of sin, evil, and death. But it also includes the overarching grand story of love, redemption, and grace. It showcases a God who asks us to not criticize Him about His acts of justice, but instead One who kindly encourages us to come alongside Him and grieve over a world that has misused the gift of freedom given it to do wrong instead of right. When that happens, and God acts in His righteousness, the world discovers that consequences exist for evil behavior, which is something the prophet Isaiah speaks to: “At night my soul longs for You, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently; for when the earth experiences Your judgments the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9).
Consideration #5 – When caught in a moral dilemma…
It’s hard to create a scenario where we could put ourselves in God’s shoes…and put God into a ‘moral dilemma’ …but let’s try.
There is a runaway trolley car picking up speed and heading towards a crowded market.
There are only 2 people on the trolley car…but 15 people in the path of the trolley.
You have the power to reroute the trolley to a different track. In this scenario, only the two occupants of the trolley die.
You can also do nothing with the track switch, in which case the 2 on the trolley will live, but 15 others will die.
If you pull the switch, you will be labeled as being a ‘heartless murderer’.
What do you do?
It turns out, in scientific studies, that 90% of us would pull the switch.
More specifically, a Michigan State University published these results:
Of the 147 participants, 133 (or 90.5 percent) pulled the switch to divert the boxcar, resulting in the death of the one hiker. Fourteen participants allowed the boxcar to kill the five hikers (11 participants did not pull the switch, while three pulled the switch but then returned it to its original position).
It was noted that the ‘rule of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be overcome by considerations of the greater good’.
So, how do we know that God wasn’t faced with similar choices? Ie: judge some cities or people groups based on their corrupt and damaging immorality (after giving them ample time to change or escape the consequences)…and be called a ‘genocidal’ God…OR do nothing, and being omniscient, know for a fact that the results would be far worse and destructive to mankind?
Do we at least need to leave room for a scenario where God is in command of facts and details that we don’t know…and that His decisions were tough one’s to make?
And, if we were in his shoes…might it be that we would have made similar decisions, knowing what He knew?
Consideration #6 – The Main Difference is the difference between ‘judgment within history’ and ‘judgment at the end of history’.
In the Old Testament, when the Israelites sin, they weren’t told they would be separated from God and ‘go to hell’…but rather, that they will be punished by an opposing army. They were ‘judged’ by the Canaanites, Moabites, Midianites, Ammorites, Philistines and, later on, by the Arameans, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
Kaiser, Davids, Bruce and Brauch state it this way in the book “Hard Sayings of the Bible”…
Because of this difference from the New Testament, Old Testament judgment generally does not talk about eschatological scenes like lakes of fire and the dissolving of the heavens and the earth or the falling of stars or eternal chains. Instead it gives vivid pictures of fearful events that the people living then knew all too well, such as famine, plague, marauding armies and the like. It is unpleasant for us to read the prophets spelling out the details of such events, but they were the realities of life then (and for much of the world, also today). Furthermore, God is spelling them out so that people can repent and avoid them, not because he enjoys them.
Related to these descriptions is the fact that in the Old Testament the idea of an afterlife was only partially revealed and even that revelation comes toward the end of the Old Testament period. Most of the time the people thought of death as going down to the shadow world of Sheol where there was no praise of God and at best only a semilife. What they hoped for was to die at a ripe old age with a good name, having seen their children and grandchildren, who would carry on their name. Therefore the judgments in the Old Testament are those which speak to such hopes: warning of whole families being wiped out or of people dying when they are still young.
By the New Testament period God has revealed a lot more about the future life. Therefore the judgments spoken of there are the judgments related to the end of history and the resurrection of the dead: eternal life or being thrown into hell, seeing all that one worked for being burned up or receiving a crown of life. All of these take place beyond history, when Christ returns, and thus when history as we have known it has come to an end.
Obviously, this follow up piece to our message this morning is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive…but i do hope that it has eased some tension, painted a few pictures of some possibilities, got you thinking and reflecting a bit more, and served as an example of what a bit of digging and research can produce.
Being a reflective Christ-follower (…and not just a cliché-Christian), means we keep asking honest questions…and as we do, we’ll find there are more answers to those questions than we ever thought possible!