Should christians accept everything in the Old Testament as truly from God?


I was intending getting onto some more positive topics, but I decided I needed to have one more look at this matter.

My previous post, Did God command killings in the Old Testament or was that a misunderstanding?, examined an incident where Jehu became king of Israel by killing the former king, Joram. In discussion on that post, a reader suggested there were ways to interpret these difficult Old Testament passages that didn’t discredit the accuracy of the revelation of God’s character as they believed I was doing.

So let’s have a look in more detail.

The problem

Christians have mostly been taught to treat the Bible as God’s Word, which means they believe it is highly accurate, if not perfectly accurate, when it describes events and gives information about God.

But modern analysis has thrown up a series of problems for such a belief, particularly in the Old Testament. Examples include:

  1. Science has made it difficult to believe in the Genesis creation story and a worldwide flood, both of which resemble ancient Akkadian legends.
  2. Archaeological evidence doesn’t exist for most of the Genesis and Exodus stories, and archaeology throws doubt on the Biblical account of the settlement of Israelites into Canaan.
  3. It is difficult to believe that the loving God that Jesus revealed could have ordered wholesale slaughter on so many occasions.
  4. There are places where different accounts or teachings within the Old Testament seem to be contradictory.

In the incident under discussion, God is recorded in 2 Kings 9 as telling Jehu through the prophet Elisha to kill all the family of the line of Ahab – Joram, Jezebel and all their relatives – because of their evil in worshipping Baal and in killing prophets, which is an example of #3. But later the prophet Hosea seems to say that God will now punish the descendants of Jehu because of Jehu’s massacre to gain the throne, an example of #4.

Two ways to respond to these issues

1. Trust the Bible as God’s Word

This is the traditional approach. It argues that:

  1. Christians have always understood the Bible to be God’s Word, and God cannot lie.
  2. Jesus and the New Testament writers quote and refer to Old Testament stories, and characters like Adam, Moses, David and Elijah, so they must have been real people and events.
  3. Failure to hold to these teachings impugns God’s revelation and takes away our confidence in the Bible.
  4. God is just, and had good reasons to command the killings – because opponents of Israel and Judah were truly evil and allowing them to continue would have corrupted the generations that would one day produce Jesus. God’s plan of salvation must be protected!
  5. Every apparent anomaly and difficulty has an explanation that preserves the integrity of the Bible, we just have to find it. Holding to these teachings is a test of our faith.
Elisha, Jehu and Hosea

The difficulty regarding Hosea’s condemnation of Jehu has been addressed in two different ways.

1. Jehu was more violent than God had commanded

It is argued that Jehu overstepped what God commanded, and killed people God didn’t say should be killed, and so his descendants deserved to be punished. The trouble with this approach is that:

  • Hosea gives no indication of this,
  • three different ways that Jehu overstepped the mark have been proposed, suggesting that there is no clear indication of this in the text either,
  • it still portrays God as commanding wholesale slaughter, and
  • it seems unjust for God to punish anyone other than the perpetrator of the evil.

2. Hosea wasn’t referring to Jehu’s killings

On this view, there has been a slight mistranslation in Hosea, and rather than saying Jehu would be punished for the killings in 2 Kings 9, Hosea is saying that Jehu will be punished for other (unspecified) sins in a similar manner to how Joram was punished.

I find this a little more plausible, but it still seems like a stretch.

2. Take the Bible for what it is

There is no doubt it would be simpler to believe that God had given us a perfect, or at least reliable, book of history and teachings. However, is it reasonable to believe this?

There are many reasons why I am unable to take the traditional approach.

It is claiming more than Bible claims for itself

I know of nowhere that the Bible claims to be without error, or that the whole Bible is claimed to be the “Word of God”. Many of the arguments for the Bible’s inerrancy rest on an assumption that it is the very Word of God, or extrapolation from parts that claim more direct inspiration (like the words of prophets).

The argument that the way Jesus and the apostles referred to the Old Testament shows they thought it was literal and truthful history looks strong until it is examined more closely.

  1. Jesus and the apostles were very flexible and creative in how they quoted the Old Testament. About half the time they altered the text, or took passages out of context, or re-interpreted them, to make their point. For examples, see Jesus said we are all gods?, Interpreting the Old Testament and an earlier post on the same topic. They apparently didn’t see their scriptures as being set in stone.
  2. There are several places where the New Testament writers reference events and people that are NOT in the Old Testament, but are in Jewish writings, some of which we would consider legendary. Examples include:
    • 2 Timothy 3:8, which refers to Jannes and Jambres, two characters mentioned in a Targum (a rabbi’s paraphrase, explanation or expansion of the scriptures, which sometimes contradicted the scriptural text); one is also mentioned in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls;
    • Jude 9 references a dispute over Moses’ body, and Jude 14-15 quotes words of Enoch. Neither of these are in the Old Testament, but both appeared in other Jewish literature of the time.

So it seems that the apostles, and first century Jews generally, were willing to quote as if authoritative sources that weren’t scriptural, and to re-interpret and re-state scriptural passages. Granted this, it is hard to see how Jesus’ reference to Moses or Paul’s reference to Adam can be taken as definite endorsements of the historicity of all stories about these two characters.

The evidence suggests a more human document

The evidence that the Old Testament cannot be taken as inerrant words from God seems to me to be overwhelming.

  1. The creation and flood stories are very similar to older Akkadian myths and almost certainly derived from them. This suggests they too are myths, though we can believe myths that God has used to teach us.
  2. The battles, coups and massacres recorded in the period of the monarchy sound realistic enough, but it seems to belittle God to say he approved of such mayhem. This impression is reinforced by the Mesha inscription, a 9th century BCE stone monument from Israel’s western neighbour Moab. It describes some of Moab’s battles with Israel, some of which are mentioned in the Old Testament too, with the difference that the fighting is approved by the Moabite god Chemosh, who says very similar things to YHWH. Yet Chemosh is described in the Bible as an abomination. It makes it seem likely that the Israelites started off with seeing YHWH as the deity of their tribe.
  3. The Old Testament contains many stories that seem more appropriate to a tribal deity than the God of the universe, such as:
    • God sending an evil spirit to King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14. 18:10)
    • The story of Balaam and his talking donkey (Numbers 22), who is recorded as being given conflicting messages by God, which would be more explicable if Balaam was consulting several tribal deities.
    • The prophet Elisha curses cheeky bunch of teenagers in God’s name, and two bears maul them (2 Kings 2:23-24).
    • The Elisha-Jehu-Hosea story we started with seems to fit the same pattern of violent behaviour being attributed to God.
  4. The archaeological evidence (and a few Biblical passages) suggest that the conquest of Canaan by Joshua was nowhere near as complete as claimed. In fact historians wonder whether it is more likely that many of the Israelites didn’t come from Egypt in an exodus, but were in Canaan all along. The conquest stories seem like a mix of history and fiction to build up the image of the Israelites as a coherent nation.
  5. Where there are parallel accounts of events, the details sometimes differ. Teachings can differ between different parts of the Old Testament. For example:
    • Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5 contradict each other, as do Proverbs 10:15 and 18:11. Personally, I am not concerned that proverbs disagree (the same happens in English proverbs) for they are wisdom that is meant to be applied appropriately, but it does make it problematic to quote them authoritatively.
    • The accounts in Chronicles sometimes differ significantly from those in Samuel-Kings. For example 1 Chronicles 22 & 23 portray the transfer of power from David to Solomon as peaceful and popular, whereas 1 Kings 1 & 2 describe a bloody battle for power and revenge on some of those who plotted against Solomon. The differences can be explained by the different aims and perspectives of the writers.
    • Some parts of the law differ from others. For example, the rules on slaves differ between Exodus 21:2-7 and Deuteronomy 15:12. The Passover rules differ between Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16.
    • Hosea isn’t the only prophet who appears to correct previous teachings. Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 say God will punish descendants for their ancestors’ sins (which seems unjust), but Exekiel (18:19-20) says God will not do this. The Law said in many places that animal sacrifice was necessary to atone for sin, yet the prophets (e.g. Hosea 6:6, Jeremiah 7:22-23, Amos 5:21-24) say that justice, mercy and obedience were far more important to God than sacrifice.

To me, the evidence suggests that God started where the Hebrews were as a typical small Canaanite nation, with practices and beliefs similar to the nations that surrounded them. But gradually he taught them new ways, through the re-interpretation of their founding stories (whether history or myth is not really important), the prophets and eventually through Jesus.

CS Lewis knew a thing or two about ancient history, myth, literature and culture, and he summed it up this way:

“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”

Can every difficulty be satisfactorily explained?

If we take the traditional approach, we are left with trying to explain, or explain away, the many anomalies and difficulties. I think this is a foolish approach:

  • Even if we can find satisfactory explanations, some of them will seem forced and unlikely. One problematic explanation after an other will not be convincing to many people (certainly not me), especially if they become aware of the arguments against those explanations.
  • It is surely focusing on the wrong thing. Our task is to show the merits of the kingdom of God established by Jesus, in our words and actions. Why be diverted to lesser tasks?
  • Christians brought up to believe every part of the Old Testament must be without error will be more prone to give up their faith if they decide there are some errors.
Is God really seen most completely in Jesus?

In the end, this is the clincher for me. We are told in the New Testament that Jesus is the most compete revelation of God that we can have (Colossians 1:15,19, Hebrews 1:1-3). The portrayal of God in the Old Testament seems far less worthy than what we see in Jesus. So if it contradicts what we see in Jesus, we must have understood it wrongly.

I think we should lift up the character of God, even if that means “lowering” our view of the Old Testament, rather than maintain a “high” view of scripture that harms our understanding of God.

The end of the matter?

So we have a choice between two quite different responses.

I am sympathetic to those who choose the traditional response. They feel they are being faithful to God, and they have a Bible they can feel confident of. I don’t have any innate wish to disturb them in this. I would be pleased if I could hold this view with integrity.

But I feel we have little choice. The Bible doesn’t seem to claim as much for itself as the traditional view does. The evidence suggests God started with the beliefs most ancient near eastern tribes held, and gradually refined them over centuries. Our ability to find explanations of individual difficulties does little to take away the implausibility of the traditional view as a whole.

This is scary for some christians, but liberating once we grasp it fully.

The traditional view seems to be destructive of faith for many people. (I have come across many people who stopped believing because they couldn’t integrate an inerrant Bible with the historical evidence, and many others who struggled to do so until they chose the second view.)

This isn’t anywhere near the core of what Jesus calls us to believe and do. But a wrong view can so easily get in the way of following him.

I think it is time to put aside our fears, revise our doctrines and get on with working to see God’s kingdom come more completely on earth.

Further reading

Graphic: Free Bible Images and Rachel-Esther via Compfight cc.

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  1. Dear Unkle
    Thank you for your kind words on The Resurrection 🙂
    It’s very encouraging.
    And thank you for presenting a balanced view on scripture and inspiration. It makes a lot of sense.
    I also think that it’s a clincher whether God is seen most completely in Jesus. And that’s why I have been drawn to Jesus even when flirting with other religion. – Simply because I see a laser-beam pointing right up in the infinite. I see no lack of love when reading about what he said and did.
    I see no boundary.
    It seems to me to be complete and ultimate unselfishness – both what he says and does.
    It’s some kind of extreme.
    Not just good advice for being friendly or something like that. No, it really points beyond this world to the infinite. I’m in awe when I hear him speak.
    Nonetheless, questions creep in. And so I think:
    * How much uncertainty can we accept?
    – Can we accept that he or the apostles thought the world was flat?
    – Can we accept if they thought the big Moses did exist, if only a much smaller Moses-like figure did exist?
    – Can we accept that St. Paul had to ask the apostles if he was teaching the right thing? (Why was he asking them if he himself had the Holy Spirit?).
    … What I’m trying to get to is this: If they can be wrong or have uncertainty about different things like the above, how can we be sure that they know what they talk about when they talk about the (general) resurrection and other things?

  2. Hi Thomas, I agree with your comments here. I think after we determine the historical facts about Jesus, we decide what we think about him. I agree with what you have said about him.
    Re your questions, I don’t know that I have any definite answers …..
    “* How much uncertainty can we accept?
    – Can we accept that he or the apostles thought the world was flat?
    – Can we accept if they thought the big Moses did exist, if only a much smaller Moses-like figure did exist?
    – Can we accept that St. Paul had to ask the apostles if he was teaching the right thing? (Why was he asking them if he himself had the Holy Spirit?).”

    I don’t see any problem with the apostles thinking the world was flat. (I actually doubt they thought about the world’s shape much at all, but I guess their mental image was of it being flat.) Some people would have a problem with the son of God thinking the world was flat but (1) we don’t know what Jesus knew or didn’t know, and (2) Philippians 2 said he “emptied himself” to come to earth, and while we don’t know what that exactly means, I think we can say that he wasn’t omniscient while on earth. So I have no real problem with that.
    I think the first century Jews had a creative and non-literal relationship with the OT (as outlined in several of the links at the bottom of this post), sometimes referencing non-Biblical and apparently legendary stories, so I think their view of Moses could be like that. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that, but it seems to be the case.
    I see no problem with Paul. He teaches us (1 Corinthians 14) that we should test messages that come from the Holy Spirit, and that is what he did himself.
    “If they can be wrong or have uncertainty about different things like the above, how can we be sure that they know what they talk about when they talk about the (general) resurrection and other things?”
    I don’t think we can be absolutely sure about anything. We are human. But I think there is a big difference between an assumption about the past and reporting on what they have seen and experienced. So I think their reporting about Jesus’ resurrection is historical. What we make of their reporting about the future general resurrection is something else again. I think we can accept in faith that they were guided by the Holy Spirit, but they probably expressed their ideas in their contemporary thought forms, which we have to understand and adapt to our thought forms.
    I tend to think that if we have the big picture right (Jesus, resurrection, Kingdom of God, God is love, etc) then we can trust God, if we pray for wisdom, to keep us more or less on track, but we will always have questions. That’s OK with me.

  3. Dear Unkle
    Thank you for your feedback.
    It makes a lot of sense to me to remember that Jesus had emptied himself and thus were not omniscient – and that the apostles expressed their ideas in their contemporary thought forms, which we have to adapt to our thought forms.
    Thanks a lot!

  4. Cool post. Good on you for tackling the big issues. Pete Enns book, ‘The Bible Tells me so’ is a great read for this sort of thing for anyone dipping their toes in the non-literal waters.

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