31 January 2007

Wrestling with the Bible study again

Here's Numbers 15:32-36. I'll give you the version from The Message, so you know it's a more "generous" translation:

32-35 Once, during those wilderness years of the People of Israel, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. The ones who caught him hauled him before Moses and Aaron and the entire congregation. They put him in custody until it became clear what to do with him. Then God spoke to Moses: "Give the man the death penalty. Yes, kill him, the whole community hurling stones at him outside the camp."

36 So the whole community took him outside the camp and threw stones at him, an execution commanded by God and given through Moses.


So here's the thing. The God I know didn't do this. The God I know in Jesus, the God who was Jesus as described in the Gospels (read Matthew 12, among many other examples) didn't do this. Or, God is crazy. The Trinity is nothing more than a schizoid personality disorder. Or, maybe, God did a lot of growing up in a few hundred years.

Or maybe, just maybe, the person who wrote down this portion of Numbers was just factually mistaken. Maybe Moses thought this command came from God, but he was wrong. Or maybe the truth got lost in the oral tradition between Moses and this story getting written down. I don't know. But honestly, I truly feel this is the only reasonable, honest, authentic conclusion I can come to. And like all conclusions in this life, I recognize that it's provisional. I don't know what the truth of this situation was. I don't know jack. But I have to say that this particular question seems somewhat cut-and-dried for me right now.

I've never believed in Biblical factual inerrancy. I suspect I never will. I do believe that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, etc. What that means to me is that even this passage comes to me from God - even if it is, in fact, misrepresenting God. God wants me to learn something from this word. I don't think it's the literal meaning. I don't know what it might be.

If you have any thoughts, let me know.

23 comments:

Ken said...

What method of inspiration do you ascribe to? I tend toward the plenary side of things, which leaves plenty of room for human interpretation (by the author), mistakes, personal biases, etc. I tend to read the old testament as the story of God through the eyes of God's followers. So sometimes it has over zealous or even outlandish statements, egoic contrasts with outsiders, biased "war stories," etc.

The *truth* of the Bible can be absorbed by reading select passages within the context of the whole, and giving the authors liberty to at times be embarrasingly human...

Mike Croghan said...

Yeah, I agree with that, pretty much. I don't think we're supposed to go all Thomas Jefferson on the Bible and start cutting out huge bits that we claim are useless to us, just because they're so clearly authored by the embarrassingly human. But I don't think you were suggesting that, either.

Well said, Ken.

Jayce from Rochester said...

Do you think God knows what sarcasm is?

Mike Croghan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Croghan said...

Oh, totally! In fact, I have it on >good authority that is was actually invented by his best friend.

However, if you're suggesting that that's what was at play here, then I would add that I give God enough credit to realize that we talking monkeys are too stoopid to know what sarcasm is. :-)

Gary Glass said...

>I do believe that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, etc.

Why? Does this belief have foundation? If so why doesn't that foundation guide you toward an understanding of this passage? If not so, then you're off the hook anyway, so why does it matter whether this passage makes any sense?

What does "all scripture" mean anyway? All the stuff between the covers of the received text? Which version? Because what we really have are just piles of manuscripts which are copies of copies of copies, with lots of errors and omissions and copyist editorializing. The Book is an anthology of those manuscripts selected for political and polemical reasons. And that's just the stuff on paper. What about breath and love and children? Are these included in "all scripture"? What about hatred and cat vomit and cardboard boxes?

Mike Croghan said...

Briefly, I order (hope I don't miss one!): 1) The combined witness of 2000 years of Christian believers. 2) Yes, sort of (see #1), but I'm not a foundationalist. 3) Why should it? See #2. 4) N/A.

5) Primarily "the Bible", because of #1, but the other stuff you mentioned too is also part of God's creation and paying attention to those is also profitable for learning and growth. 6) I'm not a literalist, so "which version" doesn't really matter too much to me. I value good, honest scholarship, and an attention to readability. I tend to fall in love with a different translation every year or so.

I know it's always possible that a new original manuscript (or something) might be discovered that invalidates something significant in *every* modern translation I've studied. That's fine. I don't worry more about that than I do that I might have drawn the wrong lesson from cleaning up this morning's cat vomit; if I keep myself open to future learning and correction, I think I'll be OK.

(And yes, I also read and benefit from Christian texts that *didn't* make the political and polemical cut, like the Gospel of Thomas, but frankly they don't get the same weight in my eyes because they haven't been treasured by the millennia-spanning cloud of witnesses of which I am a part. That doesn't mean they aren't wonderful and valuable; I just don't believe I'm obligated to take them into account as part of my commitment to this tradition, as I am with the canonical Hebrew Bible and New Covenant.)

Gary Glass said...

Mike, pal, you've got all the pieces of the puzzle, but you're not putting them together into a picture. You have conflicting beliefs about this passage and you want to reconcile those conflicts, but you have other beliefs that conflict with all the rational ways in which these conflicts might be resolved.

I don't believe that God can be irrational. I don't believe there is a key to unlocking these scriptures that will make them make them acceptable in some higher or deeper sense. Without these beliefs, no problems appear.

What it says is that God had his people murder one of their own for gathering wood on Saturday. Did it happen or is it just an instructive tale? If the former, God is a small-minded thug. If the latter, the lesson is trivial: do what you're told or you'll get a spanking.

Neither of these alternatives is noble enough to assign the Creator Of The Universe. So we better look for something wise in it, something subtle and deep. So it must be about how the soul who strays from the Lord's commands is inevitably excluded from his company because darkness and light cannot co-locate. Now we're back to theodicy idiocy. And round and round we go, chasing our tails.

But the way out is to cut the Gordian knot of mere belief. I don't belief that God is irrational. I don't believe the scriptures are God inspired. I think the story is typical of the transactional beliefs of tribal peoples throughout the milennia, and has been told and retold to reinforce the social structures required by political power.

That sort of interpretation is straightforward and doesn't require me to turn my brains inside out to make my beliefs sustainable.

Mike Croghan said...

This is some good rant I've elicited from you, Gary! Fun stuff. :-)

Mike, pal, you've got all the pieces of the puzzle, but you're not putting them together into a picture.

Agreed - not necessarily trying to do so.

You have conflicting beliefs about this passage and you want to reconcile those conflicts,

Yes...and no. I probably do have conflicting beliefs, but I don't necessarily want to reconcile them.

but you have other beliefs that conflict with all the rational ways in which these conflicts might be resolved.

Ach. Reason is overrated. Great tool; poor shackle. ;-)

I don't believe that God can be irrational.

I'm not so sure. You may be right, but my mind is not made up on this. Again, I'm not sure that rationality is the highest virtue.

I don't believe there is a key to unlocking these scriptures that will make them make them acceptable in some higher or deeper sense.

On this we're agreed - I don't believe such a key exists either, and I'm not looking for one. I can see how my original post would have implied otherwise, though.

Without these beliefs, no problems appear. What it says is that God had his people murder one of their own for gathering wood on Saturday. Did it happen or is it just an instructive tale? If the former, God is a small-minded thug.

Right - I definitely reject the former interpretation.

If the latter, the lesson is trivial: do what you're told or you'll get a spanking.

Well, maybe that was the lesson intended by the original human author(s) of the tale, but I doubt that's the lesson God wants *me* to draw from it. But maybe it is, I don't know.

Neither of these alternatives is noble enough to assign the Creator Of The Universe.

Agreed, 100%.

So we better look for something wise in it, something subtle and deep.

Hmm. Maybe. That might be helpful.

So it must be about how the soul who strays from the Lord's commands is inevitably excluded from his company because darkness and light cannot co-locate.

Uh, OK,on second thought,that seems to have been a dead end. :-)

Now we're back to theodicy idiocy.

Agreed.

And round and round we go, chasing our tails.

We could. It was fun so far, if a bit dizzying. ;-)

But the way out is to cut the Gordian knot of mere belief.

*A* way out, I agree.

I don't belief that God is irrational.

Again, I'm not so sure.

I don't believe the scriptures are God inspired.

I do, but I'm not too inflexible regarding what that means to me.

I think the story is typical of the transactional beliefs of tribal peoples throughout the milennia, and has been told and retold to reinforce the social structures required by political power.

Agreed.

That sort of interpretation is straightforward and doesn't require me to turn my brains inside out to make my beliefs sustainable.

Again agreed, and I can get behind that interpretation as far as it goes. Where I jump off this train of thought is where the next logical conclusion is that therefore, this story is of no value to me and has nothing to teach me, and so I might as well take scissors to that part of my Bible in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. I believe, due to my commitment to the received tradition of my faith, that God has something to teach me through this story. It may have little or nothing to do with the intention of the human author(s). In this case, it might be nothing more than "You're right, Croghan - the Bible's not inerrant." But I'm not really trying to solve this problem once and for all. I'm OK with a little ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes the struggle is its own reward, IMHO.

Gary Glass said...

I hadn't thought of it as a rant. Brother, when I mean to rant, there's no mistaking it! And thou, for one, ought to know!

Anyway, I just don't think you're playing fair with your brains. On the one hand you follow a line of reasoning very carefully, but it ends up where you don't want your beliefs to end up, so then you just opt out: "Oh well, reason ain't so good anyway. Just look where it led me! I don't mind not knowing."

I don't believe God gave you reason so it could lead you astray. I don't believe God gave you reason so you could be blinded by it. I don't believe God gave you reason so you could be shackled by it. I don't believe God is hard to understand. What's hard is being UNreasonable. Because that is a denial of what we are, of how we are constituted, of the way the creation itself hangs together. In short, if anything is sinful, irrationality must be. Reason is not the same as logic. Logic is how we model reason. Irrationality is not the same as transcendence or intuition. Intuition is not contrary to reason. It is her handmaiden.

Mike Croghan said...

I can't figure out if this is a textbook example of a debate between a "modern" and a "postmodern", or a textbook debate between an "S" on the MBTI and an "N". :-) Maybe both. Maybe I give us both too much credit, and the textbook writers wouldn't find us all that interesting. ;-) I reject the primacy of reason. It's a tool, nothing more. Of course we should use it. I followed your reasoning all the way to the end. I just don't follow it to the conclusion after the end. I don't think reason is God, and I'm not sure God is always reasonable. You are sure about that - cool! I neither have nor crave that surity.

And yeah, I know you can rant way better than that. I just haven't had the pleasure in a while. :-)

Peace,
Mike

Gary Glass said...

I think the last one is the best one: they wouldn't find us very interesting.

I didn't say anything about the primacy of reason. But I reject the notion that it should be discarded because one doesn't like where it leads. Reason doesn't encompass creation, but it isn't separate us from it either.

I didn't say that God is reasonable, I said that God can't be unreasonable. If you think that, then indeed God must be the capricious petty tyrant he appears in this passage. For what is capricious other than unreasonable, unfair, unjust?

Is there any material difference between your line of thought and that of Biblical creationists? Reason leads all rational and informed observers to the inevitable conclusion that the universe is billions of years old and that all life as we know it evolved from a common primordial source. That is a conclusion that directly contradicts the beliefs of certain believers, and on that ground they also reject reason.

Mike Croghan said...

OK, Mr. Glass, this time you're trying to trick me with logical fallacy. Your Jedi mind tricks won't work on me. The proposition that "(Maybe) God can be unreasonable" does not logically imply that "God must be the capricious petty tyrant he apprears in this passage." To say that "Capricious tyrants are unreasonable" does not logically imply that "All unreasonable people are capiricious tyrants". Was Mother Teresa's life reasonable?

And BTW, I have no problem with strict creationists, as long as they aren't confusing faith with science and trying to get our public schools to teach faith in science class. Obviously I think they're mistaken, though.

Gary Glass said...

My point is not fallacious. It's different from your legitimate fallacies. It is this: if you are willing to believe that God can be irrational then I fail to see how you can square this with believing that God cannot be capricious. You've already said that what looks fair and just and reasonable is not necessarily the case with God. Yet the God you know is not unfair, unjust, unreasonable. Either you're willing to apply reason to God or you aren't. If you're just going to apply it only as far as it doesn't conflict with what you want to believe then you aren't really applying it at all. The facts of the matter don't get changed just because we don't believe in them. This is how a fact is a fact.

>Obviously I think they're mistaken, though.

Upon what ground do you think they're mistaken? Their rationalizations are indistinguishable from your own. They have certain core beliefs. One of them is that the Bible is literally true. The God they know is the God who made heaven and earth in six 24-hour days. If any line of reasoning winds up in contradiction to this belief, then the line of reasoning must be, in some sense, wrong. Here's my challenge to you: distinguish you're willingness to give primacy to faith over reason from theirs. If you can't, then upon what ground can you claim they are mistaken?

Mike Croghan said...

I'm not sure I'm giving faith primacy over reason. I think I'm giving mystery primacy over reason. I'm saying I doubt our ability to use reason to get to definite conclusions about things. We can be comfortable with our conclusions, arrived at through proper exercise of reason, and we can and must act on them, but we would do well to hold them lightly. I'm not certain that my idea of "fair" and "just" and "reasonable" corresponds 100% with God's. I'm not sure it corresponds 100% with yours, or Tina's, or anybody's. I think I'm just doubting my own infallibility. On the other hand, I'm comfortable enough with my idea of these things to say that I don't believe God told anybody to stone that poor stick-collecting sap.

Let me ask you a question: what makes you so sure that God can't be unreasonable?

WMS said...

fascinating debate... very lucid arguments on both sides... or should I say "reasonable" FMLR (from my limited reason)

Mike Croghan said...

One more thing, since I sort of dodged Gary's challenge about Creationism: I think they're mistaken because I refuse to ignore the witness of science, as I believe they must do in order to hold their position. I don't think I'm stubbornly ignoring anything when I say I refuse to discard the idea that the Bible may have something to teach me - even the screwed-up bits, even if the lesson has almost nothing to do with the intention of the human authors. Since I've already admitted that I'm also unwilling to discard the didactic value of cat vomit, I contend that I'm not being all that unreasonable in making this commitment to the Bible! :-)

Gary Glass said...

>I'm not sure I'm giving faith primacy over reason. I think I'm giving mystery primacy over reason.

I can't parse what that might mean. I give "not knowing" primacy over "knowing"? How's that work? I suspect you're using "mystery" to cover a multitude of sins.

>I'm saying I doubt our ability to use reason to get to definite conclusions about things. We can be comfortable with our conclusions, arrived at through proper exercise of reason, and we can and must act on them, but we would do well to hold them lightly.

Here we are agreed. But there is a difference in emphasis. If reasons lead to conclusions I don't like, I don't dismiss the problem with an appeal to reason's inadequacy nor to an appeal to beliefs I can't bring myself to abandon nor to the primacy of "myster". I believe the proper response to this situation is to ask whether there is something wrong with my logic or with my assumptions.

>I'm not certain that my idea of "fair" and "just" and "reasonable" corresponds 100% with God's. I'm not sure it corresponds 100% with yours, or Tina's, or anybody's. I think I'm just doubting my own infallibility. On the other hand, I'm comfortable enough with my idea of these things to say that I don't believe God told anybody to stone that poor stick-collecting sap.

This just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. On the one you say you're not certain whether your idea of "fair, just, and reasonable" corresponds to God's. On the other hand, you're certain enough about it that you can assert God did not do what the scripture says that God did. On the one hand you claim to respect the witness of science and to believe creationists are mistaken about the facts of the matter, but on the other you don't feel compelled to accept the consequences of the logical contradictions of your claims.

So you're either certain enough or not certain enough depending upon which belief you're defending. You can claim to doubt your infallibility, but in fact you are not doing so except perhaps in some academic sense.

>Let me ask you a question: what makes you so sure that God can't be unreasonable?

First of all, I don't believe in anything like a personal deity, creator of the universe, or whatnot, so the question is somewhat ill-considered. My point in saying that God cannot be unreasonable is that an unreasonable God cannot be distinguished from a malevolent God. There would be no grounds upon which to make that distinction. If you believe that God made you and didn't botch the job, then he made you a reasonable person. He made your brain work that way. If you believe that you are in a position to know anything at all about God then this can only be the case because human-knowing is not fundamentally different from God-knowing. If it were fundamentally different, then essentially if God has any points of contact with his human creatures they would be purely arbitrary ones. They would consist of various anecdotes like the one retailed in this passage, having no *comprehensible* relation to each other: random, disconnected, capricious, irrational.

If you believe that God can be unreasonable then you simply have no grounds upon which to claim that God did not do what this passage says God did, nor to claim that God *did* do what the passage says. In fact you have no ground for claiming anything at all about God. An unreasonable God might choose to appear you like a loving personal deity, and to the next person like vicious demon, and to the next person like a pile of cat vomit, and to the next person like nothing at all -- just because God finds it amusing to confuse people, or for any other reason, or for no reason at all.

On the other hand, if you accept that God cannot be unreasonable, then your logically contradictory beliefs about this God are in crisis.

If you argue that God may be reasonable, but we don't understand God's reasons, this is equivalent to saying God is unreasonable, because, again, you have only your own reason upon which to stake these claims about God, but you've ruled out your reason when you said God's reasons are not human reasons.

Gary Glass said...

FYI. God wants you to get off blogger as soon as humanly possible. What a piece of junk. I've never had to try less than twice to publish a comment. This time I had to try four times.

Mike Croghan said...

You win. I am crushed under the weight of your reason. I hereby renounce my irrational practice of being more sure about some things than about others. ;-)

The new Blogger is a lot better than the old one, but it's still in the just-past-beta stage - 1.0. You and I both know what that means. I'm hopeful that, now that they're in the Google fold, they'll actually keep getting better, fix the really annoying crap, and save me the trouble of migrating.

bdure said...

Blogger is a work of man, not God. I sense no divine inspiration in it. :)

I like the notion of giving "mystery" primacy over reason. We humans should have such humility to realize we're not going to "get it," not completely.

The authors of our scriptures didn't quite "get it." They can only tell us what they saw or what they were told. That's valuable.

And so when I read that Mike has "no problem" with strict creationists, I see it as giving license to his fellow human to be human -- that is, to be wrong.

Mike Croghan said...

Thanks, Beau! Good stuff, and a helpful and accurate restatement of where I was coming from.

Gary said...

>And so when I read that Mike has "no problem" with strict creationists, I see it as giving license to his fellow human to be human -- that is, to be wrong.

That sounds nice, but it isn't. If anything is a moral imperative surely truth is. By that I mean living in the real world, the actual creation, not some imaginary vision of it. No, you don't have license to be wrong. You have a license to be right, and a responsibility to try to be right. Because the alternative to reality is death. You don't have license to be wrong about the facts of the matter. Nobody has a license to be mistaken about whether or putting a bullet in my head will kill me. Nobody has a license to be mistaken about global warming, or nuclear weapons, or efficacy of antibiotics, or God's moral imperatives. Everybody has a moral responsibility to try to be right about these things. Dismissing the basic tenets of reasonable analysis is a denial of this responsibility. It's a moral failure. It is, if anything is, a sin.