–the first in a series of posts exploring the nature of the Bible–
In the beginning was the Argument, and the Argument was with God, and the Argument was: God. God was the subject of the Argument, and the Argument was a good one.
Who is God?
What is God like?
What does God require of us?
What is God doing about injustice?
What is God doing, if anything, to relieve the human condition?
Is God benevolent, malevolent, or simply indifferent?
Is there any divinely-infused meaning to human existence, or is it all just senseless?
So begins Thom Stark’s book, The Human Faces of God.
I have recently posted a blog series – The Wars of the Lord – based on his chapter on violence and genocide in the Old Testament. These posts were uncomfortable for some, and really made the question: ‘what is the Bible?’ come to the fore.
So what is the Bible? A very good question, a central one. Many of us grew up with a certain idea about what the Bible is, and what it is not. It is the Word of God. It is whole. It is unified. It clearly and unequivocably is the voice of God. It is without error. It is entirely different than any other books that have ever existed.
Upon deeper study of the Bible, many – myself included – have needed our understanding of this ancient text to be altered a bit. The simplified understanding of equating the Bible with a unified book with no errors or contradictions, showing up at our doorstep directly from God – probably in the King James Version – needs to be revisited.
Many of us have unconsciously assumed the Bible speaks with unanimity on every topic it covers. The Bible speaks with one voice. So I can pick a verse from one place, say the Psalms, and expect that to be in line with a verse from the gospels, or one of Paul’s letters, or Revelation. Simple, right?
Consider an alternative to this ‘single-voice’ approach:
Throughout history, worshipers of Yahweh have been engaged in this argument, and for every question posed, they have proposed a plurality of divergent answers. In the beginning, long before there was the Word of God, there were the words of God’s people. That is to say, before there was a Bible – a “Word of God” as a singular entity – there was an argument about God, reflected in diverse texts and traditions; and it is in fact that argument that is today enshrined in the Judeo-Christian canons of scripture. As John Collins has it, the Bible is a “collection of writings that is marked by lively internal debate, and by a remarkable spirit of self-criticism.” To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument – with itself. (Stark, ch.1)
What do you think of this approach?
It is worth considering. I like it because it preserves the rabbinical idea that God is present in the community as it debates the text together. In other words, as we wrestle with the text together, God is there. The wrestling is a necessary part of hearing the voice of God in scripture. It is not a simple, one-off pronouncement of X or Y, but a divinely-inspired communal wrestling with the ways God has interacted with his people in the past. As we do that, we may find God is at work among us today. The text is not static – it is living and active.
This approach also acknowledges the discrepancies and alternative voices found within the Bible that we often ignore or attempt to impossibly reconcile in our attempt to squeeze the Bible into the box we’ve created for it.
The Bible is where I encounter God. And as I approach it, I must remember that the Bible itself is a library of sorts – an ancient library, and like any library, contains various books written by different people that don’t all say the same thing (and some of the books themselves are products of the community). That doesn’t mean that God isn’t speaking, but is, perhaps, the evidence that God has spoken.
I will follow up this post with several examples, but for now, just wanted to whet your appetite with a different approach that I feel does justice to what the Bible actually is, rather than what we want it to be.