I’m currently reading The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about it. Enns is a biblical scholar, and he writes about how his understanding of the bible has changed and expanded. He says that conservative Christians tend to have this idea about what the bible is “supposed to” be- it’s “Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual” (p 10). And of course, these conservative Christians truly value the bible and believe we should study it very seriously- but when people actually do this, they find the bible is not so perfect and clear after all. It’s weird. And we’ve been told that Christians must believe the bible is so clear and straightforward and 100% correct and every word is applicable to our lives... so what do we do when we find it’s a book that’s not really like that at all?
He’s absolutely right. I was always encouraged to ask questions about the bible- all questions are okay!- but with the understanding that I would then find “the answer” and I’d have to accept it. In bible study, people were allowed to say “wow, what God did here sounds awful” and then we’d have a discussion about it, the goal of which was to find some explanation that would help us believe what God did actually was NOT awful.
“I think this is wrong” was not a valid opinion we could hold. It was fine to say it, to honestly give our reaction to the passage being read, but we all knew it couldn’t actually be wrong, and we trusted that with enough research it could all be explained.
In the past when I read the bible, I believed that everything it had God saying or doing was by definition good and right. There could be no “God did something really bad here” or “I think this was just the writer’s opinion, not what God actually commanded.”
Reading the bible in this way has definitely affected my view of God. Seeing all the genocide and misogyny and horrifically graphic curses and believing it all must be good and right because hey, God said it IN THE BIBLE... what kind of God does that leave me with?
Perhaps this can best be shown by an example. I present to you: The Worst Bible Story Ever. It’s a story that has lurked in the back of my mind for a long time, haunting me and causing me to wonder if God is acting in my life the way God acted in this story.
Go ahead and read it: 2 Samuel 21:1-14.
So. Basically, God sent a famine on Israel because a long time ago, before David was the king, Saul massacred some of the Gibeonite people. Yes, Saul did this terrible thing, and then several decades later, God decided to suddenly, out of nowhere, punish David and the Israelites for not making it right.
So there’s a famine for 3 years, and David legitimately has no idea why. Eventually God tells them it’s punishment for that one time when Saul killed the Gibeonites. Long ago. So David goes and asks the Gibeonites how to make it right, and they ask for permission to execute seven of Saul's male descendents.
And that’s what David does. He hands over seven of Saul’s male relatives for the Gibeonites to kill. There’s this weird little aside about how David spared Mephibosheth because you all remember the Sunday school lesson about David showing mercy to Mephibosheth, what a nice guy. Mephibosheth is not a red shirt, so David doesn’t have him killed. Wow isn’t David so nice?
And it works. So those people- who may or may not actually have had anything to do with the human rights abuses against the Gibeonites- get killed, and God apparently approves of it all. God ends the famine and all is well.
So, you know, I read this story and the obvious question is “WTF?!” I’ve read a few commentaries about it, looking for answers, but none of them addressed the question of “WTF”. They barely mentioned this passage, or just gave some little statement like “having Saul’s relatives killed may seem barbaric to modern readers, but really it was totally legit, trust me. Nothing to see here. Anyway, this story teaches us to be obedient, like David. Isn’t David a great guy?” That’s all.
And what did I learn from this, the Worst Bible Story?
It taught me that sometimes God causes bad things in our lives as punishment for a completely unrelated sin, which we might not even be aware of. And the punishment will only stop once we figure out the specific sin and make it right- and “make it right” might mean doing some highly questionable things. You know, obeying God even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. That’s the only way to stop the punishment.
If David didn’t kill those guys, God would have let that famine go on forever. You gotta obey God, regardless of others’ opinions on what’s acceptable behavior.
And I’ve been haunted by that for a long time.
The fear that problems in my life are punishment from a God who can’t find any other way to communicate. And I’m just screwed until I figure out which sin it was that’s being punished. And it might be something I wasn’t even involved in. And then I have to do the right thing, even though it’s ridiculous and risky and actually seems like a really bad idea- but that’s the only way God will end the suffering.
(And that’s why I thought maybe if I deleted from my computer all the music I had downloaded illegally, my friend whom I had been praying for would finally become a Christian. I deleted it. She did not become a Christian.)
Less than a week after I began dating my previous boyfriend, I got sick. My stomach felt sick, constantly, and this continued for weeks. And I wondered if it was God telling me I shouldn’t be dating him. At that time, I was beginning some baby steps of rebelling against purity culture- I had committed the awful sin of acquiring a boyfriend without a clear “yes” from God. I had decided that he was a pretty great guy and it would be worth it to date him and find out if we could be compatible (and yes, that was a good decision based on the available information at the time. Not "the right" decision; there is no one magical "right" decision. Just varying degrees of good or bad decisions).
But, you know, purity culture says that we need to wait until God shows us our perfect soul mate, and just deciding to date someone because it seemed like a good idea (while being aware that we don’t know until we try) means I don’t trust God and I’m giving in to my fleshly desires. (5 bucks to anyone who can find an example of “fleshly” being used by someone who’s not an evangelical Christian.)
And I got sick. And I wondered if God would heal me if I broke up with him. Even though there was no reason- there was nothing wrong with our relationship. Except that maybe it was a horrible sin. And maybe God sent the sickness as a punishment.
And I wondered, and I told myself, no I don’t view God that way anymore, I believe God gives us freedom to make choices like this and God wouldn’t do that. (This was right around the time I quit believing that God sends people to hell for being mistaken about religion.)
(And no I did not break up with him at that time, and I ended up getting surgery to remove my gall bladder, and everything got better, and then later we broke up for different reasons. So. Did God send that gall bladder problem as punishment? I don’t think so.)
I don’t believe in a God like that anymore. But that’s the God we see in the Worst Bible Story, and I’ve wondered and worried many times if that could be the reason for problems in my life.
As a bonus, I will also tell you the Second Worst Bible Story.
Go over and read it: Numbers 25.
So, this one time, Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert, and a bunch of them started having sex with Moabite women and worshiping the Moabite idols. God was not a fan of this, so, of course, God started killing a bunch of the Israelites. But then, one courageous man, Phinehas, leapt into action. He saw a man and woman go into a tent, presumably to have the worst kind of God-hating sex, and he threw his spear and it went right through both of them and they died there and God’s honor was restored and the plague stopped. Wow what a hero!
And what did I learn from this story?
Obviously, the meaning is this: Sometimes people are doing things in their own personal lives which God considers immoral. Even though these immoral people are not directly hurting anyone, they are indirectly destroying society because God sends a plague on all of us as punishment. In some cases, the sin is so horrible that, even though it’s a situation that doesn’t involve you at all, you would be right to jump in there and just STOP THE SIN by any means possible. Even violence may be acceptable.
And I’ve even heard this story cited to show that there is a biblical argument for murdering abortion doctors. It’s definitely not something my friend who made this argument would actually seriously do- you know, because Christianity also highly disapproves of murder and we are quick to distance ourselves from the kind of person who would do that, but... there is a biblical argument for it. You need to stop the sin. There’s no time to be reasonable.
On another occasion, a friend of mine, let’s call him Hector, brought another friend, let’s call him Carl, to church. Carl claimed to be a Christian, but he hadn’t been attending church or anything, and Hector and I knew that he didn’t have a real “relationship with God”, you know, because evangelical Christians are all about judging who is and who isn’t a “real Christian.”
So Carl came to church. And that week, we had communion, and Hector stopped him and explained, you know, honestly, you’re not a real Christian, so you shouldn’t take communion. And Carl was really hurt by it (can you imagine), but I admired Hector for taking a stand like that. Defending the wafers and grape juice from those who don’t have the “correct” view on Jesus.
I would never have done what Hector did, because I was not confident enough in my understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 and I had never seen anyone stopped from taking communion before. (At the church where I grew up, they clearly explain that it’s for all Christians, regardless of denomination, but it’s not like anyone’s guarding it and checking if you’re a Christian or not. And actually, one time I did invite a non-Christian friend to church and she did eat the wafer and grape juice, and I didn't say anything because ... well I mean, clearly I was more worried about what people would think of me than about honoring God. Or maybe because I was trying to be a good and loving friend. Take your pick.)
I would never have done that, but I really admired Hector for the way he stepped out in faith and took a stand for God, even though other people didn't accept it.
Remember what Phinehas did. He just jumped in there, no time to explain, no time to ask questions. Just STOP THE SIN, and it doesn’t matter who gets killed in the process. We need to defend God.
So those are my top two Worst Bible Stories. Now I have a different view- I don’t think that’s actually how they happened; I think the writers were giving a creative interpretation of events in order to teach the readers something. (What that “something” is, I have no idea, but I’m willing to believe it’s something useful, because I value the bible. Or, you know, maybe not something useful, and it was a mistake to put them in the bible. Who knows.)
Readers, here’s my question to you: Is there something in the bible that affected you the way that these affected me? Do you have a Worst Bible Story?
And if you have any insight on the Worst and Second Worst Bible Stories I shared (if you can help address the question of “WTF”), that would be useful too. These two examples definitely need a lot of cultural background I don’t have if they’re going to come close to making any sense. So let me know what you think. (But only if you respect that I don’t have to agree and that I’m allowed to believe they are the Worst Bible Stories and still be a Christian. None of this “let’s tell Perfect Number how she clearly interpreted the bible wrong and actually nothing in the bible is bad or confusing.”)
My other posts about The Bible Tells Me So:
The Worst Bible Story
Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture)
The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem
The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain
Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context
The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus
Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again