Why the ‘Contradictions’ in the Bible are Beautiful
And what we can learn from them
I bought a very nerdy book about the Bible recently and it has unexpectedly touched my heart. The book in question is called The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliott Friedman. Sounds riveting, doesn’t it? I will get to why it touched me so deeply in a moment. But first, some background.
Like many Christians with an evangelical history, most of my formative years as a Christian were spent in churches where The Word of God was assumed to be the definitive repository of truth. We all knew, of course, that the Bible wasn’t really a book in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a collection of writings compiled over a long period of time. We understood that it was written by people but divinely inspired.
This understanding of the Bible as divine yet human/human yet divine wonderfully encapsulates my own experience of the scriptures. In one moment, I can read something that reaches through the centuries right into my own present with wisdom and relevance in such a way that it is like hearing the very voice of God. In the next, I find myself confronted with something that is utterly ancient and alien and not infrequently distasteful. Something that brings me face to face with the fact that the words I’m reading were written by actual people living in an ancient culture utterly different from my own. People with very different views about rape and slavery and mildew and the shape of the planet.
Take the prophets. There’s this from Micah, which I’ve found endlessly inspiring. I had it written on the wall in my hallway for years:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Ezekiel’s description of Jerusalem, on the other hand:
…she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.(Ezekiel 23:20)
is not going on a fridge magnet in my house anytime soon. It’s just odd.
In many church communities, including the ones I’ve been part of, it’s the Bible’s divinity that takes center stage. Any sense that the Bible was written and compiled by actual people, living in particular cultures, is not just sidelined, but quite frequently shoved off the stage and evicted from the theatre.
One of the consequences of this has been that although I’ve spent a great deal of time over several decades reading the Bible, seeking to understand it, and listening to people talking about it, barely any time or energy has gone into learning about how and why and when and by whom it was actually written. The focus has been on what the Bible says, not on how it came to exist in the first place. The human origins of the Bible just don’t come up. I have been wracking my brains, but I can’t remember a single sermon or Bible study session or seminar at a conference where anyone has deemed it worth talking about.
Behind this glaring omission is a desire to assert that the Bible is not simply a means through which God can speak, but an entirely God-authored work of completely flawless, timeless, divinity. Totally relevant in all times and all places to all people. Unsullied by the involvement of people. This is why it continually gets referred to as ‘God’s Word.’
Oftentimes, that takes a particular skill for not seeing the blindingly obvious. Last week a friend related to me a conversation he’d had with his church minister, who’d read out a document from an organization of which their church is a part, stating that they support a ‘biblical view of marriage’. My friend asked what that meant. “You know what that means,” said his minister. “No, actually, I don’t,” said my friend. “Well, you know what they’re saying…” was the reply. Well, yes, probably. But it takes a very particular set of lenses to find in the Bible a pattern of marriage ‘between one man and one woman’ rather than between one man, multiple wives, and a selection of concubines. But that’s a conversation for another day.
This view of the Bible demands that it speak with one voice on all matters. Because if God wrote it, God is hardly going to disagree with God. So, for example, quite a lot of people have expended quite a lot of energy over the years seeking to explain away fairly obvious contradictions between different biblical accounts of the same events. Time and energy they will never get back.
But in trying to find ways around the contradictions, we can end up missing something beautiful. So. Back to my nerdy book purchase. In an attempt to remedy my own ignorance I have been finding out about how the Bible came to be. Biblical scholars have been able to work out that many of the books in the old testament are not the work of one author, but rather a careful knitting together of material from a number of different sources. So, if you take the first five books of the Bible, there were source documents, amongst others, from two different nations, the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, and from two different priesthoods. Then there were the editors (often called redactors) who pulled the whole thing together.
In the book that I bought, Friedman explains some of this and then presents the first five books of the Old Testament, with the parts that come from each of the different source materials, in different colors and styles of type, so that you can see which passages come from which source, as you read.
What moved me unexpectedly, what struck me as beautiful, is the way that these differing perspectives and traditions are treated. The text represents a coming together of different points of view. Not a fight about who was right and who had the ‘correct’ version of a particular story, but rather a giving of space to the sacred manuscripts of different parts of the community. The work of the redactors is incredibly skillful, so you don’t notice at first glance that it’s not a unified whole. They add the odd sentence here and there that draws the whole thing together. Sometimes they add things that smooth over discrepancies, but mainly they simply let differing accounts of the same things sit side by side. Like the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis.
It is the carefulness and respect with which the whole thing has been done, that has made it possible for scholars to see the joins and work out how the whole thing was put together. Apparently, for example, the age of different parts of the narrative is evident from the style of the Hebrew. So just as you and I could make a pretty good guess as to whether a passage of English we were presented with, was written in Elizabethan times, or the 1950’s or last week, so the scholars can age the Hebrew. Another of the key differences between the different parts of the text is the names used for God.
Now, these days, if you’re editing a document together from different sources, it would be a case of using the cut and paste functions. You wouldn’t bother changing the wording. But the original editors of the Old Testament were painstakingly writing this stuff out by hand. So were the scribes who came after them. Plenty of time to make edits. The fact that they didn’t mess with the texts is quite impressive. I’d have found the temptation to correct and improve things, to smooth things over, update the language of the really ancient bits to make it easier to understand, impossible to resist. But the redactors and the scribes didn’t. They allowed each voice to stand, in its own way.
There had been real, significant, political, and religious divisions that had pulled people apart into groups that were separate enough from one another to develop their own traditional stories and writings. And yet here they are brought together. That’s rather remarkable. In these days when political and religious discourse can be so divisive and people are finding it so hard to listen to one another, it would be no bad thing if we were to take some inspiration from the compilers of the Old Testament and allow space for different voices without expecting them to change their style or their opinions.
That would give the injunction to ‘be more biblical’ an entirely different flavor…
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