Bible Things That Make You Go, "Huh?"
Updated: Jul 26
"What is it?"
Whether it's Superman, a UFO or a strange sea creature, inquiring humans want to know. We make our best guesses: A bird? A plane? A weather balloon? Some weird kind of seahorse?
How about the Bible? What is it? For some in Christendom, it's like a familiar friend that speaks personally to us- there's not much figuring out to do. Others depend on "experts" to explain the nuances of the book. Isn't that what Sunday sermons, small group Bible studies and YouTube videos are for?
It's likely that you've never been bothered enough by the question to actually go looking for answers. It might feel a bit like asking what football or Wal Mart is. We all "just know."
We don't think too much about all the ways our phones surveil our movements and personal data. We don't think too much about the ways our diets and use of plastics will shorten our lifespans. We could ignore the ways artificial intelligence has already shaped the world…
Because this book has shaped the very culture in which we unconsciously swim, and uncritically assume is superior to others
Because it has informed most of our life decisions and ethical choices whether we are aware of it or not
Because much of this informing is based on human interpretation of complex ancient documents, not the original meanings
Because it has been represented as "ultimate truth" to the people in our tribe and beyond
Because it's worth asking if we haven't adopted some ancient social norms that are now an ill fit for 21st century America, simply because we place it in a unique category of literature we call "Holy, inerrant, God-Inspired Scripture."
Most of our readers are acquainted with the claim that the Bible is the Word of God. From that standpoint, as explained to us by our faith traditions, the Bible is granted a special status. There are a number of ways we express this: the Bible itself says that God does not deal in falsehood, so we can depend on every part of scripture to represent what's true about existence. It also speaks with a unified voice; any apparent contradictions can be creatively solved with proper interpretive skill. Third, it's authoritative. When applied properly (and in tandem with the Holy Spirit), the Bible is alone among written literature in its power to enact God's will in our world (some traditions and teachers give the Bible a magical quality- which defined differently than "miraculous").
Are you ready to push against some of these propositional walls to see if they hold up to scrutiny? Let's take that consequence in the middle, that perceiving the Bible as the Word of God must mean that it's unified, univocal (speaks with one agreeing voice) and unanimous on all topics it addresses. If God the cosmic creator chose to give us written material that transcends time and distance, it's a fair expectation that this God would not allow contradiction or incoherency (things that don't add up) to needlessly muddy the communication signals. It also stands to reason that when there are multiple descriptions of historical events or theological ideas that each one should agree without much outside interpretation.
The alternative is to admit that the Bible contains contradictory and incoherent material. If the reader can set aside his or her assumptions for a short time, it's not difficult to find passages that outright disagree. At first this realization might shake one's confidence in the Bible as a dependable source of truth. On the other hand, insistence on univocality forces interpreters to slice, dice and mash many passages in order to force agreement where a plain reading shows disagreement.
A Quick example:
Paul, arguing in Ephesians 2 that Gentiles now have access to God, portrays the Jewish Law as unnecessary: "...he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us [Jews and Gentiles], abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace..."
Implication: in the world to come, there will be one new species of human, neither Jewish nor Gentile.
Jesus, quoted in Matthew, seems to have a different take on the Law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill… whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
Implication: in the world to come, keeping the Jewish Law brings honor.*
According the gospel writers, Jesus is fully committed to a Jewish world in the kingdom of heaven. "…at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19)
So will there be one unified new humanity as Paul predicts, or a Jewish plus Gentile one governed by twelve tribal leaders, according to ancient Jewish Law?
See Isaiah 2 for a fuller description of the world to come that Matthew might have had in view, based on his use of other quotations from Isaiah and other ancient prophets.
And there's more.
Consider that the Bible may be a product that is at least as human as it is divine. If that's true, we ought to allow the authors to tell their stories without having to squeeze them into our preconceived notions of what it's supposed to say. Can we let the Bible show us that debate is not always bad? Can we change our minds about the Bible- that it's a discussion instead of a declaration? If we can do that...
We can escape some crazy circular reasoning like this: The Bible teaches that it is God's word, which proves that the Bible is God's word. Interpreted correctly, of course, by people with their own social purposes, thousands of years later.
Dogmas like inerrancy, inspiration and infallibility can be interrogated more honestly, testing the evidence for these ideas before we take a position on them, instead of taking them for granted.
We can more easily include political, social and historical data to investigate original meanings, reducing mistaken readings of texts while unconsciously under the influence of our own cultural assumptions and values.
Modern critical study of the both Testaments has uncovered traces of a very complex process of compilation and redaction (combining and editing multiple sources to create a single new one) by different agents, with discernably different reasons and agendas.
Let's look at a sampling of instances where contradiction or incoherency shows up in our Bibles.
It's common knowledge that there are two distinct accounts of creation in Genesis one and two. Reconciling them as equally accurate historical accounts is difficult at best. Here's why:
In Genesis 1, humans are created last, after everything else: light, dark, firmament, dry land, etc. The only detail we have is that the first humans emerge as male and female in the image of the gods (plural). No mention of Eden, just delegated authority over all the previously created living things.
In Genesis 2, earth and sky are created first. There are a few parallels to Egyptian creation mythology** involving a watery abyss out of which arises a "primordial mound" also watered by a mist. Humans are created second, before vegetation, rain and farming. Third, God plants a garden in Eden and a river with four branches is (created?) described. Fourth, God plants a garden in Eden and places Adam there. Next, "Helpers" are sought for Adam, resulting in failure. Another difference between the two accounts is the presence of this corrected mistake when Eve is created, whereas chapter one shows nothing but perfection at every step.
Some explain the differences as simply a general account followed by one more specific to Adam and Eve, but it remains problematic if a reader demands full agreement between all statements of scripture, he or she must concoct a reason for the discrepancies between the two accounts.
Isn't it easier to admit to two separate traditions placed side by side by ancient compilers? By disagreeing on the specifics, the text allows readers or hearers to draw their own conclusions about God and our origins. When held side by side with modern scientifically based origin stories, their richness only increases as examples of innovative ancient near eastern etiologies (origin stories) well before data from mitochondrial DNA, evolution, linguistic and neurological studies.
More surprises: After God drives the couple out of Eden for their sin, we find Cain and Abel, their sons participating in the worship of Yahweh by means of a sacrificial system. Where did that come from? We are not told any detail about it other than farmer Cain was rejected in favor of shepherd Abel. The writers-redactors of Genesis seem to assume that their audience would understand the differences between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers, and the rules concerning blood or grain sacrifices in liturgy. There was no need to answer this question for people for whom it was very familiar. It's a simple example of projecting contemporary norms onto a narrative from the distant past, as we will see in the story of Noah after the flood.
How many animals did Noah take on board the ark? In Genesis 7:1ff, it describes the words of God to Noah: "You shall take with you seven pairs of every clean animal." This is a huge number of animals, and assumes that dietary laws are already in place: that would amount to 14 of each species that chews a cud, has a split hoof, is neither a scavenger nor a predatory creature. This amounts to 14 each of moose, reindeer and elk and many, many other similar species. He also took male-female pairs of all animals that are unclean, plus seven pairs of birds of the sky.
But if ancient editors didn't know about moose or elk, or polar bears or wolverines, it would not have appeared to be such a daunting task.
And don't tell animal welfare activists about those thousands of clean animals and birds that made it through the flood, enduring life in the hold of a wooden boat only to be slaughtered and burned on an altar in Genesis 8. Implied here is some kind of sacrificial system going back to Adam and Eve's son Cain who got in trouble over his mistake in Genesis 4. Worshipping God with burnt animal offerings is merely assumed and placed in these stories- a possible anachronism from later times when everyone "just knew" how one was supposed to worship a deity. If nothing else, it points to an audience that was well versed in the worship of deities by means of animal sacrifice.
While this story doesn't internally contradict, the logistics betray a limited scope of what is meant by "every" and "all" in terms of animal species. Taken as literal historical fact, it's unambiguously impossible to care for two million species, including fungi, algaes, single-celled creatures, and untold thousands of plant species, for a year in a wooden boat. A Judahite man in 600 BCE had no intellectual category for the sheer number of species on the planet. We moderns do, however, and to place our conception of the enormous diversity of the natural world on an ancient storyteller doesn't seem fair.
If we insist on a literal approach, we've got some 'splainin' to do. How long would it take for two million species to crawl, hop, trot or slither up the ramp and into the ark? Genesis puts the animal parade at seven days. (Gen. 7:9-10). By our calculation, assuming two million species, that comes to a bit more than 285,714 animals per 24 hour period. That's almost 12,000 critters per hour, or about 3.3 per second with no coffee or bathroom breaks for the crew. And what about a land snail from central France (Paris) traveling at an average speed of .03 miles per hour. It's a 2340 mile trip to Aleppo, Syria (it's not spelled out where Noah built the ark, but somewhere in the fertile crescent might be a good guess). That poor snail had to start out from home 9 years before the events of Genesis 7, crossing mountains and deserts without stopping for a snack or a rest in the shade.
One well-known Christian organization makes an attempt to reduce the number of animals to a manageable size. Denying the idea that species develop through evolutionary processes yet claiming that Noah limited his cargo to representatives of "kinds," equivalent to biological "families" sets up a strange dilemma. One author claims that "Noah likely took two representatives of the cat kind" instead of bringing pairs of ocelots, lions, tigers and bobcats. That one cat-family pair provided the necessary genetic potential to produce all the wild and domestic felines we see today. How Servals and Lynxes descended from a single pair of "cat-kind" ancestors without some kind of evolutionary process is not addressed.***
Who Killed Goliath?
We know the story of David and Goliath, but what about Elhanan and Goliath? In 1 Samuel 17, we have the detailed account of young David slaying the giant Philistine with a sling, but what about 2 Samuel 21:19? It states: "Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam."
It even includes the detail of Goliath's spear size from 1 Samuel 17:7. Did Elhanan kill a large Philistine, but his heroics were later credited to Israel's greatest king? In 1 Chronicles 20, there's an attempt to set things straight by placing Goliath's brother "Lahmi" in Elhanan's line of fire. This has been explained away in part as an ancient manuscript copyist's error in 2 Samuel, but that ironically leads the reader to another debate about the accuracy of our Bible translations.****
Psalm 82 and Henotheism
Henotheism is the state of affairs among deities that has one chief god ruling over a council of many others. Wait, isn't the Bible staunchly monotheistic through and through?
Psalm 82 may be one of our oldest psalms as indicated by it's casual description of a "council of gods" over which Yahweh sits, having become the leader of said council. A thread can be traced through the Old Testament, in which Yahweh ascends from mere tribal god assigned to Israel, to the powerful leader of all regional deities to finally attaining to "only" status much later. We've already seen other evidence in Genesis 1 that ancient near eastern writers understood there to be a plurality of gods.
This stands in contrast to what Christians are traditionally taught- that the Bible speaks univocally about the character and nature of God as Yahweh, eternal and lone creator and sustainer of the entire universe, but that's not the way he is portrayed in the Bible. Psalm 82:1-2:
"God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?"
…Yahweh goes on to chastise the lesser national gods for their unjust treatment of their subjects and sentences them to fallen mortality. It portrays Israel's God as the one advocating for the "weak and the orphan, the lowly and destitute." In fact, once you begin to explore the original languages, it's a lot less clear that God is represented in the Bible as the singular ultimate being we think he is.
King or No King?
Let's go back to 1 Samuel, chapter 8 which relates the story of Israel's insistence on a king and a centralized administration that would replace the current system of ad hoc "judges" who arise to respond to outside threats to the nation, then go home. The passage clearly emphasizes the exasperation of the prophet Samuel when the elders of Israel entreat him to name a king. Not satisfied with Samuel's corrupt sons as judges, the people ask for "a king to judge us…so that we also may be like all the nations, and our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles." After their string of failures to please God and ward off judgement, this might sound like a reasonable request.
Samuel prayed. "And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people regarding all that they say to you, because they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being King over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have abandoned Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you as well."
Crowning a king was clearly not Plan A for Israel... Or was it?
The book of Deuteronomy is set as the last act before the chosen people enter the promised land of Canaan, well before the period covered by Judges. It contains the last commands of Moses, final directives given in a legal format. In his last speech God (through Moses) announces to Israel in chapter 17:
“When you enter the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and you take possession of it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will appoint a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ you shall in fact appoint a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses. One from among your countrymen you shall appoint as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves, anyone who is not your countryman."
Moses goes on to outline some rules for this future king of Israel:
“Now it shall come about, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully following all the words of this Law and these statutes, so that his heart will not be haughty toward his countrymen, and that he will not turn away from the commandment to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may live long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel."
So what was Samuel's problem, and God's response to being "rejected?" Didn't Moses mandate a king back before they established themselves in Canaan? The author / redactor of Judges seems to agree that a central royal administration might be a good idea when he repeatedly states that "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." …resulting in disaster.
Of course there are many more examples of stitched-together seams between a variety of narratives that show different opinions and divergent views on the nation's experience with God. Once you begin to look for them, it's surprising how many variant voices were included side by side. One things is certain: the national story of Israel is a brilliant and effective piece of literature that has played a major role in sustaining three world religions. Far from being a monolithic singular work that smoothly agrees with itself, it's more a patchwork, carefully arranged, that tells us as much about the lives and times of its many authors as about the God they worshipped.
For more on these and other discrepancies that belie the Bible's univocality, see these articles at TheTorah.com
Next Time, Some New Testament things that make you go, "Huh?"
To Think About…
Do you think biblical authors intended to record accurate history? If not, how and why did literal readings arise?
Many scholars assert that the major composition / redaction / compilation process happened just before, during and after the series of exiles suffered by both Israel and Judah. Are there reflections of the political and social realities of that period in Old Testament texts?
How do New Testament writers treat Old Testament stories?
*Jesus's antagonists are those who elevate more recent traditions and customs to the level of "Law, some of which contradict the more ancient ethical directives concerning justice and mercy.
*** "Back then, individuals within kinds would have been reproductively compatible with each other." (The reasoning for this is not explained)
"Going the other direction on the classification scale, it also implies that Noah did not bring two of every species on board the Ark. For example, tigers, lions, leopards, and ocelots were probably not specifically present. Instead, Noah likely took two representatives of the cat kind." --Dr. Nathaniel T. Jeanson, Answers in Genesis
For a typical evangelical position on univocality, here's a short article: Is the Bible True? Proof 5: Consistency of the Bible’s Internal Evidence by Jim Franks