Since I’m about to be on vacation with my family starting Monday, I hadn’t planned on making any more posts to my blog after the three that went up Friday morning. But here I am writing this letter and listening to AMC’s Hell on Wheels play in the background.
The reason for this letter is simple enough. On Twitter, you conversed with a couple of Christians and a couple of non-Christians on the topic of inerrancy. You accept inerrancy almost axiomatically. It is a belief that simply can’t be touched because any potential error in the Bible is straightaway filtered through that presupposition. You were shown plenty of errors (mostly from Christians) which you readily dismissed because, after all, the Bible can’t have any errors.
Let’s set aside inerrancy though for just a few minutes. I want you to imagine with me an alternate reality and an alternate Earth. On this world there are no Bibles as we know them on our world. Instead, all people ever discover of what we know as the Bible are fragments, often little more than a few verses and sometimes just a few words.
In the city of Topeka, Kansas a young woman by the name of Jill sits at her desk in her home office. In front of her is a red binder with the words “Sacred Writings” emblazoned on the cover. She picks up a cup of Earl Grey sitting next to her, takes a sip, sets the cup back down, and cracks open the binder. A newspaper clipping is taped to the inside of the cover. The headline reads, “Local scholar finds ancient fragment in southern Texas.” That fragment is the very first one in her binder, protected by a plastic cover. Jill takes another sip of tea and she quietly reads the fragment aloud.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
She smiles and looks back to the newspaper clipping. Halfway down there is a quote from Jill where she had been asked to summarize the fragment for a reporter. “What we are looking at,” she tells him, “is a statement about a man named Jacob and his many sons. He apparently had twelve sons by four different women. And all of them were born in a place known as Paddan-aram.” Jill traces her fingers along the clipping and then slowly closes the binder.
The next day, while she is eating breakfast, Jill receives a phone call from Scott Stone, a sixty-five year old retired dentist who had spent the last few years going to sites across the United States in search of fragments of these ancient texts. “Jill, we’ve never met but I have admired your work from afar and would like to invite you to see my collection of fragments,” he says to her. After about twenty minutes of conversation, Jill agrees to visit Bill to see his collection at his home in Upstate New York.
One week later and Jill arrives at the home of Mr. Stone. She has brought her binder so that Stone can see the very first fragment – the one about Jacob, his sons, and Paddan-aram – for himself. She walks up the steps to his large home and rings the doorbell. Mrs. Stone greets her, welcomes her into the house, and has her sit in Mr. Stone’s office. She peers around and notices all sorts of cases containing all kinds of fragments. She begins reading one to herself: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man….”
“Jill, I am so thrilled you’ve come,” came a voice from the office door.
“Mr. Stone, I presume?” Jill said, turning her attention away from the fragment and onto the man. Mr. Stone stretches out his hand and Jill takes it, giving a firm handshake that makes Mr. Stone smile. “This is quite the collection you have.”
“Yes, it is. But I’m an amateur. From what I’ve read, you are the professional!”
“I put in the hours,” Jill replies, a smirk on her face.
Stone walks over to a fragment right next to the one Jill had been reading before he had appeared in the room. “Come look at this. I think you’ll be very interested.” Jill walks over and notices a fragment that contains some names she’s familiar with but with some details she is not. She reads it out loud.
And when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.” As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Stone says. Jill looks at the piece again.
“This can’t possibly be right,” she tells him. “It confirms the fragment I found in that Rachel had a son named Benjamin and that Jacob was the child’s father. But this fragment says Benjamin is born in southern Israel, near Bethlehem. The fragment I found said he was born along with his brothers in Paddan-aram, hundreds of miles away.”
“Perplexing, isn’t it? I have a theory.”
Stone walks over to his desk and sits down in his chair. “Two different authors.”
“What?” Jill asks.
“What if these two versions of Benjamin’s birthplace are from two different authors?”
Jill walks over to Stone’s desk and sits in a chair facing him. “You’re suggesting that these two versions are from two different authors?”
“Of course. They can’t be from the same author!”
“No, I suppose not. Bethlehem isn’t anywhere near Paddan-aram.”
“Precisely! Things that are different are not the same.” Jill smiles at the obviousness of the statement but she appreciates what it means, especially for her search for fragments of this ancient text. Jill had expected every piece to be in complete agreement with every other piece. Stone’s fragment showed that this couldn’t be true.
Things that are different are not the same, after all.
We can return to our Earth now, Heather. I appreciate you indulging me in my imaginary scenario in an imaginary dimension on an imaginary Earth. But even though it was imaginary, it isn’t that far from the situation as we have it in our Bible today.
When we look at biblical texts and notice tension like that in Genesis 35:16-26, it is tempting to just brush it aside and ignore it or to make up some clever workaround that avoids the plain wording of the text. But what is going on in passages like Genesis 35 is something that has interested biblical scholars for some time. Throughout the first five books of the Bible we see these kinds of tensions: a creation account where all animal life is created before humans are and one where all animal life is created after (Genesis 1:20-27; 2:7, 18-20); a version of a Flood story where the waters lasts forty days and one where it lasts over a year (Genesis 7:17, 8:6; 7:11, 8:13); and many more.
What I want you to consider is this: What if it’s okay that the Bible has these tensions? What if they were never meant to be resolved? What if whoever pieced these similar but different stories together wasn’t as interested in making them completely agree as he was preserving traditions that had been handed down to his day? What if he was okay with the tension?
I don’t expect you to answer. In fact, if you plan on answering I hope you wait a little while to think through what I’ve written. If you disagree, that’s fine. Lay out your case. But don’t just brush what I’ve said aside. And if you feel the need to do just that, I’d recommend picking up a little book that explains all this far better than I ever could. It is by a biblical scholar named Richard Elliot Friedman and the book is entitled Who Wrote the Bible? It is about how the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament – came together. Once you start it you won’t want to put it down. It is a fantastic read!
In any event, thank you again for reading this letter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts when I come back from vacation.
The Amateur Exegete