Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thank God the Bible Contradicts Itself

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse synago...Image via Wikipedia
This past Sunday we had a lesson from the book of Ezekiel (I know- yuck. Right?)  But, aside from Mike's main point, I noticed something.  Not only does the Bible contradict itself, there are time when it directly says it's contradicting itself.  That's not something I was taught nor did I believe it when years ago I purchased the great big Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties that was supposed to explain every apparent mistake or contradiction in the Bible.  I can think of a couple of examples. One concerns sacrifices.  This one concerns God punishing children for the sins of the parents.

The case in point was this passage from Ezekiel:

1The word of the LORD came to me: 2“What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The fathers eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.
5“Suppose there is a righteous man
who does what is just and right.
6He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of the house of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife
or lie with a woman during her period.
7He does not oppress anyone,
but returns what he took in pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
8He does not lend at usury
or take excessive interest.a
He withholds his hand from doing wrong
and judges fairly between man and man.
9He follows my decrees
and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign LORD.
10“Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other thingsb 11(though the father has done none of them):
“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13He lends at usury and takes excessive interest.
Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.

So, according to this passage, the proverb handed down for generations in Israel that said that basically that if the parents sinned, the children would be punished for generations is being challenged by Ezekiel.  Well, according to Ezekiel, it's being challenged by G-d.  Oh, and by the way, it's not just in Ezekiel this notion is challenged, it's also in Deuteronomy, Kings and Jeremiah.  G-d is saying "Why did you ever believe such nonsense?  I don't punish children for the sins of the parents."   Well, maybe they believed it because of these passages:

The Lord...visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7 = Deuteronomy 5:8-10)

“Because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.” (Leviticus 26:39)

I've seen some pretty fancy footwork used to explain away some thing in the Bible. But, to my mind, these are clearly two contradictory things both put into the mouth of God.  In one passage we have God saying He punishes the children (and the children's children and the great grandchildren) for the sins of the fathers.  In another passage we have God saying the exact opposite.  So, people ask "Which is it?"  People have tried to come up with ways to make the first sound "fair".  We all know it's wrong to punish the children for something their father did.  So, we've said that the sins (shortcoming) of the fathers create generational patterns and situations that cause problems for the children.  That's absolutely true.  Is that what the verses in Exodus and Leviticus mean?  I think probably not.  I think they mean exactly what they say they mean and they are wrong.  When people (Ezekiel) got a better revelation of what God is really like he attempted to correct the record by writing his opinion which got included into the canon.  

I love this quote from Walt Whitman.  It applies to me, for sure.  And, just recently I realized it also applies to the Bible:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"
US poet (1819 - 1892)

The Bible is silent on many issues we face today.  And, I'm darn glad it is. There is no mention of global warming or abortion or monogamous, committed homosexual relationships (no, really there isn't).  Good thing too. If we get all caught up on some of the purity code laws in Leviticus about men lying with men (while ignoring the abominations of eating shellfish, touching a woman on her period or sowing two crops in the same field), imagine what would happen if the Bible actually address global warming.  Would we dare be like Ezekiel and say it was wrong?  It'd take some of literally forever to admit that the Bible was wrong if it had some incorrect information about global warming.

The Bible is not one coherent book. It's not the word of God dictated to man.  It's the words of many men written about God.  It's an on-going conversation. The Hebrews (Jews) knew this.  The written Torah is only a small part of Torah.  There's a rich tradition in Judaism of Oral Torah and there are tons and tons of opinions rendered both written and oral.  The Bible is an on-going conversation with differing opinions and insights.  There is a general trend of more and more revelation in the Bible as people's ideas about God evolved.  It's not a problem that we find contradictions in the Bible unless we treat it like the "Great Big Book Of Everything" where we can go and just look an answer to every problem.  "Oh, here's what God says I should do in this situation.  It's right here in Leviticus." If that were the case, we wouldn't have to (or be able to) think for ourselves. We'd no longer have to seek God's revelation for ourselves, we'd just rely on good old Ezekiel.  We'd be spiritual cripples.   No, we have the read the Bible, as a whole, understanding historical and cultural context.  We have to continue to wrestle with the tough questions.  The Bible can help. But, it's not the be all and end all.  Thanks be to God.

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Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

And here I thought I had the only copy of the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. ;-)

Good post, Brian.

Helen Ann said...

Amen and amen! So hard to change how you read the Bible when it has been drilled into your head that it is a constitution/instructions for life/inerrant word, etc...Getting there, though! The Holy Spirit is helping me. :)

What Ho! said...

Great post, Brian.

Perhaps a couple of ways we could view this.

You've pointed out one of them - which is to come to peace with the realization that the Word of God may have been corrupted by men with vested interests over time.

The other is perhaps to not take the words literally. eg. the words father and children may not be meant in the literal sense of one begetting the other. Maybe we could view it as "those who perpetuate falsehoods (fathers) in the name of God are destined to suffer and so will their children (followers)"

Have you read the Judas Gospel? After having read the translation, I came away convinced that the modern Bible (as we know it) does not do justice to the mystical profundity of the life and sayings of Jesus. This may be for reasons that later mortals decided to water things down and make it more palatable to the average person.

Sometimes people do strange things in their anxiety to tell the truth, and destroy truth itself in the process.

Brian said...

Srini, I think there's a little of both. Yes, I took the same view you proposed to explain God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children. Make it not literal in terms of God actively punishing the children. We could take the symbolic meaning even further and say the "children" are those who follow someone. But, I think the writer of Exodus probably meant it literally because in those days the tribe was much more important than the individual. The tribe received blessings and curses, not necessarily individuals. I think the writer meant to say that the father's sins would literally cause God to punish the children.

But, I also agree that the Bible was corrupted, particularly the New Testament by the early church. I have not read the Judas Gospel. I have read the Nag Hammadi library, including the Gospel of Thomas and I have read the Aquarian Gospel.

So, I'd say the Bible is wrong in certain points. Has been corrupted to some extent. And, has been harmed even further by men trying to make it the absolute source of absolute truth. When people try to make it something it's not they actually destroy the very thing they are trying to save.

Don said...

"It's not a problem that we find contradictions in the Bible unless we treat it like the "Great Big Book Of Everything"

Exactly! Great post, Brian...

kc bob said...

Mostly I think that the biblical interpretation is not all that easy. The most damaging approach for me was hyper-literalism. When I realized that I could read things literally without embracing hyper-literalism I got a bit freer. I could read of how God told Samuel that infants should be murdered and understand that Samuel actually believed that but I did not have to take the next step and say that God actually told Samuel to do it.