Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Partial Answers

A friend at church is leading an Alpha class, and one of the attendees was asking some difficult questions. My friend wrote:

So I have a partial skeptic in this Alpha class. The person believes in the new testament just fine, but has a number of issues with the old testament for which I am at a loss to provide satisfactory answers.

If the Bible is the book of life or the way to live your life, how do we reconcile things such as these?

1. God testing Abraham by having him attempt to kill his son. If we tried this today and said God told us to do it, we would be put away for a long time. What was the point of this? If God knows all why did he have to test Abraham, he already knew what the answer would be. Granted I remember this one from last year's bible study, but a satisfactory answer did not stick with me.

2. God commits genocide for the Israelites. Some reference to an episode in Exodus where God says he will destroy all their enemies, also some issue about Joshua and Jericho. I don't know these books good enough to answer intelligently. The basic complaint is that how is this instructive in the way to live one's life? Sounds more like a vindictive God than one of patience and love.

Those are hard questions, and I don't have great answers to them, if only because they bug me too. (Especially the genocide bit in Joshua.)

In general, I try to keep the following things in mind when thinking about these and other parts of the Bible that are disturbing:

  1. Parts of the Bible are supposed to be mysterious. If it all made perfect sense, it would be a little fishy. The Bible is supposed to be dealing with realities that are beyond description. If everything in the Bible just "worked", and didn't have any mystery, or anything that rubbed us the wrong way, it would be prima facie evidence that it wasn't doing its job.
  2. I believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God, but perhaps not all in the same way. Psalm 137 ("Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks") is Scripture, and is in some sense authoritative for us, but it doesn't have the same sort of authority for us as Christians that the Sermon on the Mount does. We can learn good lessons from both, but not the same lesson, and not in the same way.
  3. God deals with us where we're at. I could explain to Caedmon all day long why he should be less selfish and should think more about other people instead of just about himself – but he's not far enough along yet even to understand that I'm speaking, let alone what I'm saying, let alone be able to do anything about it. I have to speak to him in a language that he can understand, which involves feeding him when he's hungry, holding him when he cries, changing him when he smells, and generally letting him get away with the illusion that he really is the center of the world :-). In the same way, in Joshua, God was dealing with a bronze-age culture that was nearly three millennia away from understanding that different religions actually might be able to live together in peace. The entire history of the Old Testament suggests that if God had focused at all on "why can't we all just get along", the Israelites would have concluded that the easiest way to do that would be to treat Yahweh as just another God amongst the Canaanite pantheon, and an even more important lesson would have been lost. But when the Israelites had finally gotten it through their head that there was, in fact, only one God, then and only then were they ready to hear the second part of the lesson: that this One God wanted them to turn the other cheek, to love even their enemies, and to live humbly in peace with their neighbors.
  4. There are hints even in the Old Testament that the conquest wasn't as bloody as it's described in Joshua. If you compare Judges to Joshua, it looks like Joshua is maybe a tad bit optimistic about how much territory the Israelites conquered, and how thoroughly they managed to subdue the original inhabitants. And the most recent excavations around Jericho haven't turned up much that would corroborate the Joshua account of its destruction. It's been destroyed and rebuilt a whole bunch of times, but it appears to have largely been at peace during the generally accepted dates for the conquest. (In other words, perhaps Joshua is to be understood more like 300, and less like George Grote's History of Greece: it's a genre of literature that's trying to tell an interesting story, and isn't too interested in its correspondence with actual historical reality. The story is still a bloody story, but you don't have to assume that it corresponds to actual, prolonged, divinely commanded ethnic cleansing.)
  5. Finally, and most importantly, I find Jesus compelling enough, both as an historical figure, and as a present reality in my own life, that it's worthwhile to continue puzzling over these and other questions, even when I'm not entirely satisfied with the answers. I could, in theory, just dismiss the Bible altogether whenever I find a difficulty with it, but then I'd have to dismiss Jesus too, and I can't bring myself to do that. Quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity are notoriously incompatible: but they both describe (more-or-less different) elements of reality in such compelling ways that physicists can't bring themselves to abandon one or the other. In the same way, believing in Jesus has allowed me to view the world in such interesting and compelling ways that I'm willing to continue working through these issues, even without perfectly satisfactory solutions.

These aren't pat, Sunday-school answers by any stretch. They're more a way of looking at the world, or things to keep in mind. But they're as good as I can come up with so far.

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