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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I love this post, Karissa. The idea of the authors as memoirists, writing about the past from the lens of the present, is really interesting. Gives me a lot to think about. And kudos to you for teaching 6th grade sunday school. That sounds intense. Thanks for hosting!
Thanks. Obviously I’m no Biblical scholar, but it seems reasonable.
This is great! I have been struggling with the Bible being sold as absolute truth for a while. I like the idea that it is full of human fingerprints and written like a memoir. That makes more sense to me.
Thanks so much for reading and joining us!
I have struggled with this too. It came in a season after a lifetime of not really fully understanding God’s love or grace. Once I hit college, that love and grace seemed to completely overwhelm me – in the best possible way! I would read the bible (ot mainly) and just be confused. Like, WAIT a freaking second… God told His people to do WHAT again!? I wrote in the margin of Isaiah in 2011 – “I want to understand God’s wrath a little better”. Because, I felt like, just because I am uncomfortable with what God’s telling His people to do, or how He seems to be handling certain situations (like just wiping out entire towns because they aren’t circumcised – um what!?), I don’t think that I can just choose what to believe able Him. Actually, I take that back. I can. I just don’t think I want to. I want to know ALL of God, and not just the nice parts. Yet, I cannot for the life of me understand how a God that has more compassion that I do, can send people to hell. Anyone. I remember sobbing when Saddam Hussein was hung. SADDAM HUSSEIN. Not exactly a St. Francis type of guy. And I knew even then that however much compassion I felt for him at that time I felt like, “Ok God – you must have much more compassion than even I.” Ok, weird example of a middle eastern dictator – but whatever! I want “Love” to “Win” more than anything else. I just…. am not settled into that yet because I haven’t faced the Wrathful God (and all the things in the world that don’t make sense) yet, and survived to tell about it. And then there’s Jesus. Who covers me from the wrathful God? But… He’s still totally Loving and totally… wrath filled?
Love your blog and the thoughts it stirs in me 🙂
Keep it up sista.
Thanks (again) for reading and connecting. I agree that it’s hard to reconcile things. Maybe there isn’t a hell. I don’t know. I just keep living in the tension. I think I’m less worried about figuring it all out and having all the answers now.
I have a lot of trouble with a good deal of the Old Testament. I can only see it as a backdrop to and foreshadowing of the New Testament. The genocides and treatment of women just don’t ring true to me at all. I feel the Holy Spirit very strongly when I read the New Testament and do sense the NT’s divine inspiration. I do feel it is speaking directly to me personally and to the conditions of my life. I can get advice from the NT (and sometimes the OT). Lectio divina is a very powerful technique and the reading of scripture as part of the Divine Office is very meaningful to me as well. I believe that Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but it doesn’t ring true to me that those who are not Christian will go to hell. The afterlife must involve a process for all of us in which we grow closer and closer to God – a purgatory in which we learn more and more about God and finally come face to face with Him. The story of the prodigal son is so relevant to all of us. Perhaps there are some who never embark on that journey – maybe their existence is a hell, but it only makes sense to me that they will have eternity to change their mind and begin the trek toward God.
Thanks, Karissa, for your blog – always of great interest!