Chapter 6: Scripture’s Light and Beauty. 3, “Every Word is True.”

As I browsed a Christian website recently, I noticed the statement, “Every word of the Bible is true.” I frowned, because in this case, biblical authority was used to deny scientific method—and I am very pro-science. But I’ve heard that statement “Every word of the Bible is true,” used in other contexts.

Every word of the Bible is part of the sacred book, inspired by the Spirit in its authorship, editing, and canonization. Every word of the Bible is true in the sense that Berkouwer points out: differences, anomalies, and discrepancies are not deceits that undercut the Bible’s authority.

But as we study the Bible, we encounter untoward and difficult passages (like the scatological Mal. 2:3 and the crudely sexual Ez. 23:20) that seem to have nothing to do with biblical messages of salvation and justice.[1]  We also encounter laws that seem outdated and intended for an ancient rather than modern context, like these I found at a website recently.[2]

  • Eating fat is prohibited (Lev. 3:17)
  • A woman who grabs a man’s genitals during a fight should have her hand cut off (Deut. 25:11, 12)
  • Children born out of wedlock could not enter God’s assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:2).  Handicapped people (Lev. 21:16-23), men whose testicles were removed (Deut. 23:1), and menstruating women also could not enter the assembly.
  • Homosexual men (Lev. 20:13), stubborn children (Deut. 21:18-21), witches (Ex. 22:18), and false prophets (Zech. 13:3) should be killed.
  • Playing football on Sunday is punishable by death (conflating Ex. 35:2 and Lev. 11:7, 8)
  • And yet (as this website continues) slavery (Ex. 21), genocide (Deut. 7), incest (Gen. 20:12) and polygamy (several biblical characters) are allowed.

One could add others: for instance, the biblical obligation to marry your brother in law if your husband has died (Deut. 25:5-10, a complex set of procedures and the basis of the story of Ruth and Boaz), and so on.  In other words, we find passages within the Bible itself that, to a person unsure about the Bible’s authority, seem to shed poor light upon the Bible as a source for God’s will.

The Bible also “teaches” general things that we can no longer accept. One, as I just mentioned, is slavery. The Bible contains many passages concerning slavery (Ex. 20:17, 21:20-21, Lev. 23:44-45, Deut. 5:21, Matt. 18:25, Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Tim. 6:1-3, and others). Such passages recognize slavery as a social given, although Torah laws do give means by which slaves can be freed and by which justice can be ensured for servants and slaves. The Bible did not “cause” American slavery but the Bible’s recognition of the reality of slavery was used to justify the institution and to perpetuate racial divisions in this country that are clear violations of Christ’s redemptive work (Eph. 2:13-16). Unfortunately, here is an example of a biblical acceptance of an institution that we’ve since recognized as evil.

Another, also just mentioned, is genocide. The Hebrew word herem, or kherem, refers to the practice of devoting something to the Lord, but notably in Deuteronomy 7:1-6, God devotes several nations (Canaanite kingdoms) to utter destruction. The subsequent book of Joshua (6:17, 8:26, etc.) uses the word in describing the slaughter and destruction of Jericho and Ai.  The purpose of this devotion was to keep the Israelites separate from the influence of the Canaanites (the idea of “holiness” in Deut. 7:1 implies separateness from things that are unholy).  But, of course, the notion of “holy war” is unacceptable and terrifying in our modern era.  The herem passages result from specific commands of God or Joshua,[3] and are a distinctive part of the Deuteronomistic historian’s theological interpretation of Israel’s history.[4] Thus, these Bible passages are not intended to be authorizations for similar actions beyond the biblical period. Nevertheless, we have to uphold our inability to follow the Bible on certain issues, like this one.[5]

Still another issue is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s frequent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?  Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews.  I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts.  Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust.[6] Here, greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

Perhaps I’m belaboring the point, but I want us to think about why and how the words of the Bible are true.  We may find ourselves defending the truth of the Bible to a person skeptical of its authority, and we should have the courage to say the Bible is God’s word but not all of its words, verses, and teachings are uniformly authoritative.  To put it another way, we can be confident that although the Bible contains strange things and certain outdated points of view, it truly teaches God’s salvation.

Link to next section

 


[2] “Bible Justice” by Ken Adams, http://www.liberator.net/articles/AdamsKen/BibleJustice.html

[3] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, D-H, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 118.

[4] See, for instance, Robert B. Coote’s introduction to the book of Joshua in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 555-580, which discusses several of the themes and emphases of the Deuteronomistic history and of Josiah’s reforms.

[5]  See “Excursus: Holy War,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 314

[6] See the previously cited books, Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006); and also Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, eds.,“Good News” after Auschwitz? Christian Faith within a Post-Holocaust World (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001). See also James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

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