bible difficulties

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Description is not Prescription: A tale of interpretation

Imagine someone, let’s call him Jim, reading a chapter from a typical history book written on World War 2. In said chapter, one page says “Hitler was intent upon exterminating the Jews. The Nazis proposed a ‘final solution’ intended to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.”

Jim stands up, indignant, and reacts to this text, “I can’t believe whoever wrote this book! They actually endorse the ‘final solution’! What evil person would dare to recommend such atrocities!?”

We would obviously be puzzled by Jim’s reaction. We would probably correct him by saying something like “Jim, the author isn’t recommending that course of action, they’re merely reporting what happened. It’s a history book. The author’s intent is not to tell you what to do, but to tell you what happened.”

Now imagine a similar scenario. This time, it’s Jessica reading the Bible. She reads that “Jephthah promised God that if he beat the Ammonites in battle he’d sacrifice the first living thing he saw at his house… He beat the ammonites and the first thing he saw was his daughter, whom he sacrificed after giving her time to grieve.” (A paraphrase of Judges 11. See my discussion of this passage here.)

Jessica immediately stands and shouts “How dare the Bible condone human sacrifice! God Himself told Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter!”

Our answer to Jessica is the same as it was to Jim: “Jessica, the Bible is reporting what happened, the author of Judges reports many horrific incidents and sins that God’s people committed, but that doesn’t mean the author is commending what happened or urging others to do likewise.”

Such reactions are similar to those of many who read the Bible. They read a passage which describes something that happened and jump to the conclusion that the Bible–or the God portrayed therein–is evil. The Bible is a collection of genres and writings from various authors, a point often overlooked by those unable–or unwilling–to fully engage the text. Yet often the Bible is merely describing what happened as opposed to prescribing something for God’s people.

Another problem is that people too often think of the Bible as being exclusively a “rulebook.” I think this really plays into the description/prescription fallacy because if the Bible were just a big rulebook, then everything in it would be taken prescriptively. Such people seem to think that every verse can be taken out of context and genre and used as a command. There isn’t much to say in answer to such people except to point out the obvious: there are different genres in the Bible, not all of it is a rulebook.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geneva-bible-picture.jpg

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Bible Difficulties Introduction

One of the most common objections I see to Christianity is a citation from Scripture (or a long list of citations from Scripture) which someone takes to be contradictory, evil, or something else such that it somehow discredits Christianity and the Bible.

While I do not think there are contradictions in the Bible (though there may be apparent contradictions), I do think that those who make citations or lists do have a point. As Christians, it is vitally important to take what the Bible says seriously. Contemplative reading of Scripture can often lead to questions or difficulties that one may wish to answer. Interestingly, while the unbeliever generally takes these difficulties to be intractable problems that inevitably should destroy faith, the believer can approach such difficulties with an attitude that actually uses such difficulties as opportunities to increase in one’s understanding of Scripture.

It is only fair that I share my presuppositions immediately. I believe the Bible is the Holy, inerrant (in the autographs) Word of God. It is the source for sound doctrine, but its central message is Christ Jesus my Lord. Other presuppositions can be viewed on my “About” page.

Thus, I begin a series of posts discussing various Bible difficulties. These difficulties may include apparent contradictions, hard sayings, hard stories, etc. This series will explore Bible difficulties on a verse-by-verse basis, addressing whatever verses I find interesting at any given time. It will utilize an understanding of Greek and Hebrew, as well as commentaries and apologetics works. This post serves both as an the introduction and place for links to the other posts in this series (similar to the Evolution-Creation-ID debate links here).

Bible Difficulties 1 Judges 11:29-40

Bible Difficulties 2: Adopting the Attitude of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:27 and following)

Bible Difficulties 3: Joshua 6:21-24

Bible Difficulties 4: Hardening Hearts (Exodus 4:21)

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