Note: I fully affirm the divine inspiration of the Bible. However, it is an ancient book whose authors saw the world much differently than I do. When their world and mine intersect it creates a natural tension. This series will explore how to live within this tension.
First Century Jewish Musicals
Saying the Bible isn’t true is bound to raise some concern. So I want to be clear: the Bible is true. But sometimes it’s not.
That didn’t help any, did it?
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An example, perhaps. I’m an educator, and if you’ve sat in even a few staff meetings, you’ve heard a story which may vary in specifics, but follows this basic structure: “In class today, my students were complaining about all the homework they have. They asked if we planned, during the staff meeting, to have all their tests in the same week.”
When you hear this, your assumption is probably not: “Every single student was complaining, and at one point the entire class in unison asked, ‘Do you plan, during the staff meeting, to have all these tests in the same week?’”
More likely, your brain filtered it automatically so you understood that quite a few students were unhappy about all the work, and someone asked if it was all a conspiracy. We can easily accept the latter interpretation, even though it makes what the teacher said “untruthful” on some level.
We do this with the Bible quite a bit. For example, in Luke 3 Jesus is interacting with the people and we see phrases like, “Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’”
This happens several times in the chapter with various groups coming to Jesus and asking questions. If we read this story as a 100% factually truthful account, then the real event must have looked like a first-century Jewish musical where entire groups moved and spoke in unison. In examples like this, we can accept the truthful account the Bible is giving us of what happened while acknowledging it is not literally what happened.
That’s a pretty easy example to point out this tension in the Bible. The problem arises when we somehow forget this simple way of navigating the tension when it comes to more challenging statements. Let’s look at two more challenging examples, starting with the less consequential one.
Apologetic Cows and the One Man Genocide
The story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish for three days has attracted many skeptics. I’m not one of them. At least, not for that reason. As far as I’m concerned, the whole fish thing is way down on the list of impressive miracles. I can believe the story is a literal, factual truth because the resurrection of Christ is a way more impressive feat, which I believe must be a literal, factual truth. However, when we look at chapter 3, we see the king of Nineveh ordering the livestock not to eat or drink and to join the people in wearing sackcloth. This leaves us with a couple of interpretations: either this story is not an entirely literal, factual truth, the king of Nineveh is overly dramatic, or he has unrealistic expectations of the nation’s animals.
Personally? I’m good with either interpretation. If Jonah’s story took place exactly as described, I can handle it. If it’s a parable about a man living in a fish and apologetic cows, which challenges the limits of our forgiveness, I’m fine with that too. The story doesn’t need to be factually true for me to read it and identify with the truth of Jonah’s struggle to forgive in my own life.
A more consequential example is the idea of Israel committing genocide on God’s instruction, which has caused many to question their faith and some to abandon it altogether. One of these difficult stories is found in Joshua 10. In verses 29-40 it tells us Joshua killed “all who breathed” in the following places: Libnah, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, the hill country, and Negeb.
If you are tracking with me you might have concluded Joshua probably didn’t single-handedly destroy all these people. Beyond this, the factual truth of this narrative is challenged late in chapter 15 which tells us they had to go to some of these same cities and drive out Israel’s enemies before they could be settled (see verses 13-15). If Joshua destroyed every last person in these places, how are they still full of their enemies? The more likely reality is that the author is engaging in a bit of hyperbole for the sake of the story. The truth of the story is that under God’s guidance Israel moved to destroy a very wicked group of people who practiced many evil things including regular child sacrifice. If we focus on whether or not Joshua by himself killed literally every single breathing thing in those places we miss the larger theological and narrative truths of God working through Israel to redeem the earth through a new kind of nation.
If you want further practice, check out the book of Matthew. There are some strange things happening with his genealogy of Jesus and his description of Judas’ death as opposed to Luke’s account. Matthew’s Jewish background and Jewish audience cause his gospel to seem downright dishonest if we judge it by modern western standards. As you look, though, just remember:
The Bible is always true, except when it isn’t, then it is.