ancient history, bible, fundamentalism, God, Hebrew Scriptures, inspiration, interdisciplinary science, Israelite history, Jericho, Joshua
For anyone who has come face to face with the clear evidence that factually the Bible contains many historical errors, a crisis of sorts must ensue. If one believes, as I do, that there is inherent worth in the book itself as a dispenser of spiritual food, then one must reach some conclusion as to what the word inspired means.
Clearly, as most any biblical scholar will attest to (excluding the strange world of the fundamentalist who engages in a process of no-think) the Bible was not either dictated, nor was it kept from factual error of any kind by God. The record simply cannot support such a conclusion. Yet, we do claim that the sacred scripture is “inspired,” and we must define what we mean by that.
Some claim that inspired refers to the timelessness of the moral teachings that are the heart of each story told within its pages. Some claim that we are informed through the stories of some of the attributes of God. Others suggest the inspiration comes from the unfailing integrity of the writers to set down as clearly and honestly as possible their vision of God’s walk with his people.
We are today a people who depend increasingly on the interplay of numerous disciplines in our quest for knowledge. This of course was not always the case, and particularly so in the case of biblical study. For very long, the bible was examined within its own pages for knowledge. History, slowly at first, and then with the help of various other sciences then began to help us flesh out that knowledge. We saw where it confirmed and where it contradicted.
The linguist consults the anthropologist and archaeologist, the historian, and the astronomer. It is because of this trans-disciplinary interface that we confirm or not the work of each other. Nowadays, an archaeological proposition is subject to biological, geologic, and a host of other disciplinary talents all of which study, test and then confirm or criticize the conclusion of the principal field.
Take for instance the case of Jericho, the Canaanite city that fell to Joshua’s trumpets. The bible tells us this generally in the story from Joshua, chapter six. The problem with this is that Jericho, at the time of the Israelite entrance in the promised land, was long desolate, a pile of rubble, a city no more. The city of Ai, referred to at length in Chapters seven and eight, was reduced to rubble during that time period, and thus may have fallen at the hands of Joshua. Also, Bethel fell similarly, although this is not noted in the bible.
We learn, as we have throughout much of the Hebrew Scriptures, that “history” is often factually wrong. And this was not because of faulty ability to tell the truth, but rather the stories served the greater purpose of establishing a “truth” believed by the people–namely that whatever happened that was God came from God, and whatever bedevilment befell the Israelites was due to their unfaithful behavior.
As I have studied so far up into 1Samuel, I’m discovering that this pattern of telling somewhat incorrect history for a greater purpose of “spiritual truth,” continues. There are double traditions in most of this history. Stories from the Northern Kingdom and the Southern are placed side by side, as if the writer is unable to choose the “correct” one. And later editors, also abhorring the idea of removing theological conclusions they disagree with–rework the traditions to point to their favored beliefs.
The movement from tribal confederacy that developed from the entrance into Canaan until the time of Saul, and the ensuing monarchy, are treated similarly with double traditions. One is demarked the Saul tradition, the other the Samuel. The Saul tradition suggests the “rightness” of the monarchical movement, the Samuel cautions against it. Indeed, the monarchical period will not go well over time, and a number of the prophets, (Hosea) will rail against it and claim it was a turning away from the true Kingship of Yahweh, the only rightful king of Israel.
I have come to realize that to understand the factual history of Israel from its inception is to understand the bible. It is to make clear why we tell the same stories usually twice. And why the stories set side by side conflict so often. We see the factions within the Israelite communities vying for power, attention, and prophetic correctness. Most importantly, we see the conflicting theologies being played out. We truly do see how a people day to day struggles with this difficult God whom they both look to for protection and yet in some way fear.
It is, as I have said, not a particularly good way to know God, but it certainly eliminates a lot of the grunt work as having already been done by our ancestors. We can move from there, as we have, using the interdisciplinary tools available to us to more completely reconstruct the world of our ancient religious fore bearers.
As believers, all, we share in this tapestry this is still under construction. We learn from it, we grow, we alter, add, subtract, join and sever elements. We match colors and shades, echoes of songs and poetry, epics and sagas, wise and foolish. In the Bible, as in most any sacred scripture founding any faith, we find ourselves–the good, the bad, the beautiful and ugly.
Some suggest that our “job” here is to be authentically human. Surely, the Bible is one of our most honored mechanisms for doing just that. That is plenty of inspiration for me.