For the past few years, I have taught sixth grade Sunday School at my church. If you’re looking for embarrassing and awkward situations, teach sixth grade Sunday School. You will have to listen to twelve year old boys read the word “bosom” aloud and burst into giggles. And then one of them might ask you what “bosom” means. You will have to explain what “adultery” means when you have no idea which kids have had “the talk” with their parents and which haven’t. And you will hope to God none of your students understand the true meaning of THIS verse: “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.” (Ruth 4:13.)
Last year my class and I were reading about the post-Exodus Israelites. All those years of wandering in the desert. There were some really weird stories from that part of Hebrew history, and it really started to make me wonder what the people who wrote the Bible were smoking. There were earthquakes that swallowed evil men and snakes on poles and bloody battles when God’s people did crazy stuff like ramming a spike through a general’s head. I found it very difficult to explain to twelve year olds how the loving God we believed in could be behind all of that stuff. (When their questions got really hard, I just deferred them to our priest and that was my out.)
But the passage that really hit me hard was the battle of Jericho. When I was a kid, we used to sing a Sunday School song (derived from an old spiritual) about that story:
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit he battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumblin’ down.
It was always presented as a story of triumph after a long, hard 40 years of suffering. The people of God circled the city seven times, blew a host of trumpets, and the walls collapsed! God’s chosen ones finally had a home!
But when I re-read that story years later in preparation for my sixth grade class, I read it much, much differently. The people of God invaded an established city and slaughtered everyone in it. And they claimed God told them to do it.
I can’t believe that God told them to do it.
What I can believe is that humans do what they need to do to survive, and that can often be complicated and compromising. A friend actually told me that what happened at Jericho was a common military practice at that time. So the Israelites may have simply been launching a military attack, and when it got written down, it was written as a religious triumph.
I have also found out that parts of the Old Testament were written and/or revised in retrospect while the Israelites were in Babylonian captivity. To me, it seems completely possible that the Biblical writers were doing the work of memoirists: writing about the past from the lens of the present. A good memoirist is aware that she is writing her story as truthfully as she can, but the distance created by the passage of time often skews absolute truth. A memoirist knows that her anecdotes and tales may not have happened exactly how she is describing them. Did God really tell the Israelites to invade Jericho, or was that simply the way it got recorded in an effort to frame out a faith story? I don’t know.
What I know is that human fingerprints are all over the Bible. To me, that doesn’t necessarily make the Bible errant. The fact that Scripture is full of human influence, imperfections, and less-than-exact storytelling is a testament to a faith story that accepts our humanity and gives us grace. And the fact is that God chose to wear human fingerprints just like us. That says something about how precious those fingerprints are.
But it also means that we might need to reconsider how we approach the Bible. The writers of the Bible and the people in its stories were not perfect. They were not divine or angelic or superhuman. They were everyday people just like you and me who work hard, raise families, and try to find something meaningful to live for. They experienced grief, felt jealous, told lies, got angry, betrayed friends, rejoiced, broke bread together, fed the poor, took care of widows, and loved their families. All of this encourages me, and reminds me that it’s okay to tell my imperfect story, with its smudges of doubt, whispers of questioning, and hopes for a meaningful life.
Please share your story of The Bible and Doubt in the link-up below!The link-up will be open for two weeks.
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