Skip to content

Did God Need An Editor?

December 31, 2008

James McGrath has been blogging some thoughts on inerrancy and literalism at Exploring Our Matrix: HERE, HERE, and HERE. I particularly liked his poster:


I though I might add a couple of thoughts to his posts.  Methinks James will probably agree.

Probably one of the attitudes I struggle with from fundamentalist Christians is their hyper-historical and literal stance towards the biblical narratives.  From within this attitude a biblical narrative mostly only has value if it has historical value.  An example of this is the Jonah narrative.  The story is literally true.  A man can live 3 days in the belly of a fish, all of Ninevah repented, animals in sackcloth, and there being exactly one hundred and twenty thousand people in the city of Ninevah.  If science or archaeology could disprove one small element then the WHOLE story falls apart.  It is true because it has historical value or untrue because it has no historical value.  Genre identification and the many other tools of the interpreter be damned: a biblical narrative must be historical and literal for it to have value.

I am not taking one side or the other in this case just merely pointing out the interpretive lens that some use on a certain biblical narrative and what it is exactly they value: historical veracity.

The problem with this attitude is that a close reading of the Bible will often challenge it to the point that a close reading of the Bible is undesirable and left undone.  A deductive shield that prevents one from any sort of inductive reading in which ultimately the shield becomes much more important than the Bible and what it has to say.

A good exercise to disabuse someone from such a position is synoptic readings of the historical books in the OT and the gospels in the NT.  Let me give some examples that are not problematic for many but do pose a threat to those with hyper historical positivist literal attitudes who have the icons of St. Troeltsch in the heart.  I would have to start a new blog to consider the many differences between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles but let me offer a famous one.

The first account of the same story is from 2 Samuel 24:

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.”

The second account of this story is found in 1 Chronicles 21:

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.

Do you notice a small difference there?  In the first account God incites David to a census and in the second Satan incites David.  You may be familiar that they aren’t exactly playing for the same team.  You would think if God was writing the Bible his Holy word processor or one of the editor angels could have spotted this!

It goes on; in the first account the tally “in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.”  In the second account, “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred seventy thousand who drew the sword.”

What the Sheol? God can’t even count twice the same?  Was there a problem with the heavenly abacus?

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that some impressive mental gymnastics have not been done over these passages, or that I and other modern scholars are the first to notice many of the tensions inherent in the OT such as the above– a quick comparison of some of the re-written works in the Dead Sea Scrolls will make it obvious that some of these issues were noticed a long time ago–however, one may see how these issues could be problematic for the literalist.

I would also suggest that all of us have some sort of amorphous glob conception of the historical narratives and gospel narratives in our brains that makes some sort of sense of the whole.  This is what it means to be meaning makers and human, but we should still deal with the tensions in Scripture for what they are, have interpretive lenses that deal with these issues in ways that are intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy (to borrow a term from Dr. Sparks), and at the very, very least be honest with what is in Scripture and stop worshiping our own ideological approaches to what the Bible has to be to be “true,” or of value.

Seeing as this post is already getting to long I shall leave another example from the gospel narratives concerning the life of Jesus for a second post with some further conclusions… that are literally true!

Deductive shields: deactivate!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2008 12:57 pm

    I think I’m going to adopt “What the sheol?!” for my own personal use from now on whenever I think an expletive is called for! 🙂

  2. December 31, 2008 1:43 pm

    Yes! And pass it on.

    This will be my great achievement within biblical studies: an esoteric and elitist way to politely curse.

    My parents are so proud.

  3. February 11, 2009 7:11 am

    Looking for educated comments on this post and all I find is “what the sheol?” Well I was thinking of picking up that explitive too, so, what the sheol!

    Seriously though, did you follow up with the examples you referenced as being literally true? I would like to read that if you did.

  4. February 12, 2009 9:38 am

    You’re looking for educated comments? Dude, you came to the wronnnng place.

  5. Jake permalink
    February 12, 2009 9:40 am

    Oops, I made a slight typo on the name of the commenter above. It is not “J” but is in fact “Jake”. Don’t want my brilliant comments here to be attributed to J…

    Also I believe I just proved my own point.


  6. Jake permalink
    February 12, 2009 1:54 pm

    Even thought that “J” guy is wicked awesome, and looks super hot in tight slacks.

  7. February 12, 2009 1:55 pm

    Why thank you.

  8. Jake permalink
    February 12, 2009 3:14 pm

    What can I say… apparently I just call it like I see it. So now, according to this blog and it’s awesome identification process, I like dudes in tight pants and obese women. Hooray internet…

    J, as always, you’re the man.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: