The Bible is Fiction

Rabbi, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman writes,fiction-bible-2

Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth.  “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”

fiction-bible-1Christians, especially fundamental ones, often take exception to assertions that the Bible is largely fiction. My response has always been to redirect these objections to a discussion on “how” to read the Bible. To this end, I often cite Prof. David Lose (rhymes with “chose”) from his book, “Making Sense of Scripture: Big Questions About the Book of Faith“. However, this article, The Bible Is Fiction, Rabbi Hoffman explains so well why it is important that it be so.

Please read his post if you’re serious about Bible Study.

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Does God Say Please

Does God Say Please - The binding of Isaac

Gen 22: The Binding of Isaac

The May As It Is Written column is up. Titled “Does God Say Please“, it can be downloaded from here. Previous columns can be downloaded here.

Enjoy

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Selfish Charity

selfish-or-selflessThere will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:11)

Here’s a great article about how to give charitably. It’s an interview, actually, with Father Sirico (of the Acton Institute) about selfish charity.

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God and Suffering

sumatra_tsunami

David Hart has something to say about God and suffering, especially suffering brought about by devastations of this kind. In this excerpt he recounts the horrors of man-made evil, not natural disasters as was experienced in the wake of the tsunami in the picture above. Nevertheless, suffering is suffering. His is a tough read, but give it a go…

“For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression”. 

How do we deal with this stuff? Well, to begin read his entire essay —  Tsunami and Theodicy and then come to SHLC’s Theodicy class.

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Theodicy Class Announcement

book-cover-god-forsakenBeginning Wednesday, January 29th Sammamish Hills Lutheran Church will be sponsoring a series of classes led by Pr. John LaMunyon that will deal with the the existence of evil in the presence of a good and gracious God.  As our guide, we will follow Dinesh D’Souza’s book, God Forsaken: Is There a God Who Cares.

I[1] will be joining Pastor LaMunyon, who will offer insights from the book of Job and other relevant texts from the Holy Scriptures.  Each session will begin with a discussion taken from Mr. D’Souza’s book and then will be followed by a reading and discussion of some applicable biblical texts — but especially focusing on the book of Job. The discussions which ensue are sure to be rich and broad reaching. For example,

  • In 1970 500,000 lives were lost in Bangladesh as a result of the Bhola cyclone. One half of one million people wiped from the face of the earth. What was God thinking?tsunami-destruction
  • Betty lost her husband to a slow death from a horrible disease, all the while trying to be faithful, but, in the end, wondering, “How could my God allow this to happen?”
  • Joe grew up in a household which lacked nothing, went on a mission trip to a developing country where he encountered true poverty, disease, filth, malnutrition, and homelessness for the first time in his life.  Although some in his group came home energized in their faith and eager to do more, Joe was left with a pit in his stomach and many questions of God’s justice.
  • holocaustSix million Jews lost their lives under Hitler’s anti-Semitic genocide. The Jews were God’s chosen people. How could He have let this happen?

The existence of tragedy and moral evil in the presence of loving God is one that is as old and puzzling as the book of Job.  Many answers have been given, but even more questions remain.  In his book, “God Forsaken,” Dinesh D’Souza elegantly answers these questions in a compelling and refreshingly non-technical way.

TIMES  9:30am (Fellowship Hall); 7:00pm (Sanctuary Basement)
READING Schedule is up on the church website: www.shlc.org and the weekly worship bulletin. Additional, supplementary reading is provided below
QUESTIONS OR REQUESTS FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION?  Contact Pr. John, Lead Pastor or Michael Peterson

Sponsored by:

SAMMAMISH HILLS LUTHERAN CHURCH
22818 SE 8th Street, Sammamish, WA 98074
(425) 392-7799 Fax (425) 392-7897
WEB:  http://www.shlc.org

Contacts:

Pastor John LaMunyon
Member Michael Peterson

Supplementary Reading

Dennis Prager on Reason

Can Reason Alone Lead Us To Goodness and a Good World?

Dennis Prager on Theodicy

Here, Mr. Prager discusses the problem of evil and suffering in the presence of a good and gracious God. Mr. Prager has a radio show that, every Tuesday at 11:00 AM, called the “Ultimate Issues Hour”. Below is an hour dealing with the ultimate issue of why God permits evil to exist. It’s about 35 minutes in length and contains some very interesting discussions between Dennis and his callers.

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV

Leibniz on Theodicy

Here’s an interesting and brief and highly summarized description of how Leibniz, the famed mathematical philosopher, responded to theodical arguments.

Leibniz’s Theodicy

From David B. Hart,

Tsunami and Theodicy

Some Relevant Scripture for Reflection

Isaiah 45:7 (my translation)

Forming light and creating darkness
making peace and creating calamity
I am the LORD making all these things

Amos 3:6 (my translation)

If a horn sounds in a city,
will its people not tremble?
If a calamity [befalls] a city,
is the LORD not the cause?

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  1. [1] Editor of this website, Michael is fluent in biblical Hebrew and is the author of the forthcoming book, THE BEGINNING: Genesis 1 Read as Literary Art.
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Women in the Bible: What the Bible Really Says

Women in the Bible have long been thought, incorrectly, as playing a role subordinate to than of men. In this podcast, I argue that the biblical witness when rightly understood, reveals that the degree to which human cultures flourish depends directly on the extent to which it values women as something other than servants or companions to the man.

This post begins with a more accurate translation of Genesis 2:20 – perhaps the most frequently cited verse when issues of male-female relationships are in view. In the podcast below, I discuss the translation in largely non-technical terms. The podcast closes with examples from the biblical narratives illustrating the feminine ideal of the salvific roles played by women.

Genesis 2:20

And the man called out names to all the beasts, and to all the flying creatures of the sky, and to each living thing of the field. But for the man a savior was not found for him

Women and the Flourishing of Mankind (9 minutes)

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Is God a Moral Monster

The content of this post is largely taken from Paul Copan‘s new book, “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament“. This post was motivated by a question posed to me this morning, “How do I reconcile ethics with the genocidal Yahweh?”

Here’s my short answer: I do not see a conflict between what I understand are biblical ethics and the stories of God’s interactions with the Israelites specifically, and humanity in generally.the-conquest-of-canaan

But, to understand my answer we will first need to have a common understanding of the term ethics and second, we need to make sure we’re reading the Bible with the same set of assumptions. To get started, let’s see if we can agree on the meaning of ethics.

Assuming we’re speaking of biblical ethics, I operate from the view that they are…

… a set of rules by which a person or a people express biblical values. For example, if a culture values human life above that of other animals, then I would expect to see rules instantiated that protect human life more than animal life. Staying with this example, this culture might impose capital punishment on a person who murders another human. However, a man who murders a dog, may be fined, imprisoned, or both, but not executed.

In simple terms, biblical ethics are the rules that express the values God wishes us for us to adopt.  Put another way, they are the means by which we are to order our lives to God’s values, not our own.

As for how we read the Bible, I try to understand the Bible as a person of the Ancient Near East (ANE) would have. So, for example, to understand the role of history and its expression was understood in those days. Reflect on this description by Prof. David Lose (rhymes with rose) in his book, Making Sense of Scripture:

In [pre-enlightenment] times, historical narrative was intended to educate, to enrich, and to ennoble, not primarily to capture some supposedly neutral record of events. That doesn’t mean histories written during that time had no relation to actual events, like some kind of fiction. But it does mean that when you wrote a history you were trying to get the truth of what happened across-that is, its meaning and significance. So when we imagine the biblical writers having the same concerns as a 21st-century journalist, we’re not only imposing our categories on their writing but we also risk missing the point of what they are trying to achieve in the first place

To be more specific, Professor Lose is speaking of biblical interpretation and he argues that in order to engage the deeper truths of the biblical text we must read the text in the context of a person living in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

And, after all this, let’s now examine what is arguably the most famous of the biblical genocide stories, the slaughter of the Canaanites. This particular story is probably the one most often used by the secular community to point out that, far from being a just and merciful God, the God of the Christians and Jews is a cruel, bloodthirsty monster.

Read correctly, however, the genocide of Canaan (and according to the biblical description it was, by anyone’s definition, a genocide of monstrous proportions) teaches a profound (and politically incorrect) moral lesson; but it also offers us an opportunity to understand the importance of historical-cultural context. Consider that when the book of Joshua ends, the land of Canaan is described as bereft of human life (as a result of the putative genocide). However, in the very next book, Judges, written immediately following Joshua’s conquest, the land of Canaan is highly populated with both Israelites and Canaanites! What’s going on here? How did the Canaanites repopulate so fast?

They didn’t. They were never exterminated in the first place. The genocide never occurred. Rather, the biblical author was engaging in typical ANE myth making. The written records of all battles when written by the winners, no matter what culture – biblical or otherwise, were always and universally described as slaughters of triumphal proportions. Women, children were brutalized, animals and crops utterly destroyed, the conquered soldiers put to the sword or horribly tortured. This was simply the style and intent of ancient writing and our biblical authors were no different from their pagan counterparts.

So, if this is just an exaggeration, what’s the point? Happily, there is a very, very good answer. In Deuteronomy (see chapters 12 and 20) God reveals that the Canaanites were engaged in child sacrifice (in which their first-born were burned alive) and they had been doing so for centuries. Now, child sacrifice is a manifest evil as the biblical authors attest throughout the Old Testament. So, the question that arises is this: if God thought child sacrifice was so evil, why did He wait for the Israelites to come along? Why didn’t He just kill ‘em then and there?

The answer is that the Israelites were NOT to be the means by which God was to exercise His wrath and punish the Canaanites.  Instead, the biblical text reveals that God’s concern was not the evil committed by the Canaanites, but that the Israelites might adopt this horrific practice (Deut  12:31 and 20:18). In other words, God’s concern was that His chosen people would adopt child sacrifice.

This is not the end of the story, however. We learn in Joshua (chapter 11) that Joshua offered to spare each city if they would give up child sacrifice. All but one rejected his offer. The one that agreed to Joshua’s terms was spared while the rest, according to the biblical author, were put to the sword.

There are many lessons here, but the main three are:

  1. The existence of evil (e.g., child sacrifice, the Jewish Holocaust) while detestable in God’s eyes, is concerning only when/if it threatens to corrupt the people of His covenant.
  2. Doing God’s will is more important than following the letter of God’s law. Joshua “disobeyed” God by offering to spare those who would give up child sacrifice. Joshua’s offer if accepted would have achieved God’s ends and this is why Joshua was not punished (or so argue the ancient commentators).
  3. There are some things God’s people are not to tolerate – child sacrifice being one of them. God understands that toleration begets acceptance and acceptance begets adoption (see #1, above).

The answer, then, to my interlocutor’s question is that the story of the Canaanite genocide, rightly understood, is perfectly consistent with God’s moral values and the ethical behavior that expresses those values.

 

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