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Contradictions in the Bible

I find it very amusing when people think they have somehow achieved something when they find contradictions in the narratives of the Bible. E.g. that somehow the fact that the gospel writers cannot agree on the number of angels present at the resurrection tomb somehow proves it couldn't have happened. Almost as (tragically) amusing as the literalistic Christians who try and create "harmonized" versions to "reconcile" the different narratives. Well, I am sure God appreciates your efforts to correct his mistakes! But that is not what I am posting about here.

The real contradictions in the Bible are the source of its most beautiful theology. When you contradict something your speak (dict) against (contra) it. In Deuteronomy 10:14-19 we have two wonderful examples of Biblical contradictions that result in meaningful practical theology.

14. To the Lord you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.

So here we have a clear statement that God is in sole possession of the whole universe both seen and unseen. This is a clear affirmation of God's universality (i.e. he is no provincial deity belonging to a local people group) and of his transcendence (i.e. otherness and difference from the concerns and world of humanity).

15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today.

Yet in the very next verse this picture of a universal transcendent almighty God is contradicted by the statement that God had chosen Israel (i.e. was behaving not universally but particularly) and loved them (was allowing himself to be concerned and affected by their actions and well being). And so the Israelites are being presented with a tension that this contradiction has created. They believe both statements even though there appears to be an incompatibility between them. This tension creates an energy that pushes Israel to respond in a certain way.

16. Circumcise your hearts therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer.


Because the universal God has chosen to be God to Israel in particular they must do two things: maintain a purity and holiness of "heart" (i.e. the inner person), and must be humble and teachable (because they will be the ones to teach the rest of the world about God).

The pattern is then repeated in 17-19:

17. For the lord you God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.

Once again God's transcendence is asserted and this time also his great power. Of course, God accepts no bribes, not only because he already owns everything (vs 14), but because of his totally incorruptible character.

18. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien [foreigner], giving him food and clothing.

Wait a minute, if God is impartial, how can he take sides and defend the cause of these? Wait a minute, if God is powerful why does he have any interest in the powerless of society? Once again this contradiction creates a tension that requires action of those who know God.

19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens [foreigners] in Egypt.


And so the people of Israel are not to behave like some super race, feeling superior that God has chosen them. Instead they are to love (!!!) those who are different and vulnerable in their society reflecting the fact that their God contradicts his universality and unlimited power with a particular concern for the powerless.

Now some of you will be thinking that those contradictions are nothing of the sort. But that is only because you are used to thinking about God from the end of 2000 years of Christianity, 2000 years after God was revealed in and through Jesus Christ. From the point of view of the ancient near east when these text were given to Israel, many centuries before Christ, these contradictions are both blatant and highly surprising.

Let me know what you think :-)

[Thanks to Chris Wright, The Mission of God, p79, for this structural analysis of Deut 10:14-19!]

Comments

  1. Hey man, that is brilliant. Well written.

    (those compliments sounds so cliche, but i mean them :) )

    -d-

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  2. I'll second Dale's comments, I only just found your blog, your writing has the same wry "Oh, look, a naked emperor!" tone that your speech often has, looking forward to more :)

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  3. Not very deep. How much ancient Mesopotamian literature have you read? All those ancient nations had their high gods (a high moral god, and many lesser gods as well) that preserved the well being of the nation, or who turned against that nation to teach it a lesson every now and then. That was how the ancient mentality functioned concerning gods and what happened to nations. The Hebrews were not unique in that respect.

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  7. And when you discussed the number of angels in the empty tomb stories in the Gospels, apparently you've never considered that the earliest story probably mentions no "angel" at all, but instead a "young man," the same one who tried to follow after Jesus at his arrest and had to flee away naked. It's an unnamed "young man" in both cases, the last to leave Jesus and the first to be seen at the empty tomb Easter morn. Later Gospel writers (Matthew, Luke, John) don't include the story of the "young man" who followed after Jesus at his arrest and had to flee away naked, and they also changed the "young man" at the tomb to "an angel" and even "two angels" in their later re-tellings.

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  8. Hi Edward, welcome to my blog and thanks for commenting! :-)

    First up, just to explain I have deleted your other comments because they did not appear to be related to my post, rather I think perhaps you were confusing me with the ghost of your (Xian) fundamentalist past and trying to convert me to your (atheist??) fundamentalist present. I believe it is considered polite in the blogging community to put long replies to other people's posts on your own blog and merely leave a short comment and a link in the comments section of their blog.

    Firstly, I think you are grossly exagerating the similarities between other ANE lit and the OT. Ball in your court, feel free to post a link to some relevant material and I will be very interested to read it. On the subject of how much I have read - you've got me - only the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh and only in translation. I was relying for my confidence on summaries from scholars who have. Always interested to learn more.

    Secondly, if you had read my post a little slower you would have seen that my comments on the angels at the tomb was only by way of introduction to the idea of Biblical contradictions, not meant to be an apologia of the resurrection.

    Lastly, I'm sorry you didn't find my post very deep. Given your interest in my opinion on space exploration (from your now deleted comments), you may find a forthcoming post I am planning interesting, so please come back. However I cannot guarantee any greater depth perception on your part.

    Kind regards

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