On reading and believing the Bible

We, who discern the presence of God in life, continue to articulate that presence in ever new ways for new times.

Yme Woensdregt

As a result of my recent columns about an alternative way of reading the Bible, someone said, “You don’t really believe the Bible, do you?” It led to a very good conversation, which went something like this …

I do believe the Bible, but you’re right that I don’t read it literally. In fact, I don’t believe anyone reads the Bible literally, despite what they may claim.

“What do you mean? I do. The Bible is God’s word! The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

So I asked if she stoned her children when they cursed her (Leviticus 20:9). She said she didn’t — which is a good thing. Did she eat her meat medium rare? If so, she’s guilty of breaking God’s command (Lev 17:14). I asked if she shopped on the Sabbath (that would be a Saturday in the Old Testament). I also hope she tries to prevent people with disabilities from approaching God (Lev 21: 17–23), or that she treats a new mother as unclean for seven days (Lev 12: 1–5).

I went on to tell her that the Bible tells us that it’s ok to keep foreigners as slaves as long as you treat them kindly (Lev 25: 41–46), and it’s perfectly fine to pass them on to your children as part of their inheritance.

“Well … that’s all from the Old Testament. They don’t apply to us anymore.”

I told her I was relieved to hear that, because that means gays and lesbians won’t be stoned anymore, since that’s also in the Old Testament and so those prohibitions no longer apply.

She looked confused. “Welllll … some parts of the Old Testament are still valid.”

But if you read the Bible literally, don’t you have to treat the whole thing as if it were God’s word? You can’t just pick and choose, can you?

I went on to ask her if she honestly believed that the earth stopped revolving for a day (Joshua 10) … or if she really believed that God would order the genocide of men, women and children in enemy nations (1 Samuel 15: 3) … or if she honestly thought God was xenophobic and misogynistic as well.

She pondered the question a while. “No; but … but it’s the Bible!”

It’s not just the Old Testament, I went on. The New Testament condones slavery. It tells women to shut up in church. Jesus expected the world to end in his lifetime, and it obviously hasn’t. I pointed out some of the internal inconsistencies in the Bible. James 4, for example, tells us that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. Yet doesn’t the gospel of John tell us that God loves the world?

As I’ve been saying over the past few weeks in this column, I don’t believe the Bible was ever meant to be read literally. The Bible isn’t an answer book. It’s not a manual for living. It’s not a self–help book. It’s not a history or science textbook. It’s not a book of family values or morals good for all time.

In fact, the Bible isn’t even a single book. It’s a collection of letters and laws, prophecies and proverbs, stories and songs, written over the course of more than a thousand years. It comes from a culture and language we don’t know very well. In fact, the Bible has more in common with other texts from that time and place than it does with 21st century understandings. The story of creation in Genesis echoes the same themes as the ancient Babylonian account of the origin of the world, the Enuma Elish. The story of the flood is found in ancient cultures all around the world, including ancient Jewish lore.

I told her that I do take the Bible very seriously. Despite the internal inconsistencies and the moral values with which we no longer agree, the Bible is an important testimony of two ancient communities to their sense of God’s presence in life. Both Israel and the early church discerned God at the heart of life, and related that presence in the stories we find in the pages of the Bible.

In the almost 2,000 years since then, we have learned some new things about life and how our world works. Copernicus showed us that the sun doesn’t move across the sky, but that the earth revolves around the sun. Freud and other psychologists taught us about the workings of the mind. Darwin and other scientists, physicists and astrophysicists have probed the origins of life on earth and indeed the very beginnings of the universe itself.

We, who discern the presence of God in life, continue to articulate that presence in ever new ways for new times. We don’t simply parrot the lessons learned by our ancestors. We discern new ways of being faithful to the God who infuses life with blessing and hope.

And sometimes our answers will be different than those of our ancestors in the faith. And that’s okay.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook