Monday, August 05, 2019

Anonymous Asks (52)

“Why is the Bible so weird sometimes?”

I’d love to know what specific sort of “weird” the writer of today’s question was thinking about. An example or two would’ve been great. Unfortunately, when your questions come from people who have chosen to keep their identities secret, it’s a bit of a trick to get them to clarify.

That’s okay. I’m pretty sure every reader of this column can think of some story in the Bible, or some command in the Law of Moses, or some principle taught by some church somewhere that seems weird to them. I can think of dozens.

There’s lots of “weird” in the Bible, but the problem is not always the Bible. Most of the time it’s us.

Here, then, are five reasons things in the Bible may seem bizarre, difficult to understand or hard to defend. I’m sure this doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities, but it’s a good start.
  1. The Bible appears weird to us when we grab verses out of context.
One example from this column last year: a teen looked at Ephesians 2:8-9 and compared it to James 2:24. He came away puzzled. “That’s weird,” he said. “Ephesians says we are saved through faith, but James says we are justified by works. Why would God contradict himself?”

The answer is that God didn’t, but you will only know that if you go and look carefully at the context of both verses. We need to know what Paul is talking about being saved from in Ephesians. We need to know what James means by “justified”. Most of all, we need to know if the two expressions mean exactly the same thing (hint: they don’t).

People quote verses out of context all the time. Some are trying to trick us. Some are under the impression that grabbing a verse and telling you what they think it means off the top of their head is a valid way to read the Bible. Some are just confused. Whatever the motive may be, when you hear something weird taught from the Bible, say to yourself, “Hmm. Was that the whole thing? Maybe I’d better go look ...”
  1. The Bible appears weird to us when we can’t tell the difference between description and prescription.
This is a very common problem. The Bible contains both description and prescription.

Prescription just means instructions about what to do or not do, much like a doctor would give you: “Take three spoonfuls of obedience and call me in the morning.” Or, in the Bible, things like “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.”

Description is just what it sounds like: a historical record of something that happened, like the life of David or Saul. It may contain things a person did that are good, things they did that are bad, and occasionally things that seem really weird. Sometimes the writers of the Bible comment on these stories to tell you what God thinks about what the people in the story did, and whether there is any lesson there you should take from it. Much of the time, they don’t.

If you read every ancient descriptive passage of the Bible as if it is an instruction for your life today, you are going to find the Bible very weird. It was not intended to be read that way.
  1. The Bible appears weird to us when we can’t tell the difference between literal and figurative language.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” said the Lord Jesus. “Ew,” said ... well, almost everyone, except Jesus’ immediate circle of disciples. Many then turned back and no longer followed him. Why? Because they thought Jesus was teaching cannibalism or something like it. They mistook a figurative expression for a literal one. They thought it was weird ... or worse than weird.

Another time Jesus plainly told Peter, James and John that he was going to rise from the dead. Perhaps recognizing that Jesus often spoke figuratively, they began to speculate among themselves as to what this “rising from the dead” might mean. They were looking for an allegorical meaning to a literal statement. I guarantee you anything they came up would sound really weird to us today; we know Jesus actually rose from the dead.
  1. The Bible appears weird to us when we don’t have enough information to understand what is being taught.
The Bible was not just written for you and me here in 2019. That should be obvious. It was also written for people in A.D. 1750, 1280, and 125. It was written for people in 1200 B.C., and before it was all written down, a great many of the Bible’s stories and commands were circulated orally.

Some of the things our Bibles say seem odd because they were intended to speak to a different audience — which is to say, not us. For example, there are several Hebrew words used in the book of Proverbs whose meanings are so obscure that even the best English translators cannot be completely confident about what they mean. We can make a best guess, but that’s all we can do.

That doesn’t mean those verses were never useful. The people who read them two thousand years ago knew precisely what the author meant when he used words that were part of their daily vocabularies, and they were able to put into practice whatever it was the writer may have intended.

If some of those verses seem weird to us, well, so what? We were not their intended audience.
  1. The Bible appears weird to us when our culture is wildly different from the culture of the intended audience.
“Those poor animals!” cry the vegans as they read their Old Testaments. “What a horrible thing to eat all that meat.” Not having read much history, they are unaware that famine, war and a nomadic lifestyle were big features of Old Testament life. When you can’t stop to farm, you can’t grow grain, and when you are surrounded by enemies, you can’t buy it either. And when you’re constantly having to defend your family with a sword or bow, you need more calories than you can get from the occasional bowl of lentils. There are sound historical reasons for the way people used to eat that we will not understand unless we really try to put ourselves in their shoes.

“Those poor women!” cry the feminists as they read about the “evil patriarchy” that allegedly oppressed them. But that “evil patriarchy” marched out to war regularly to defend its women, never once requiring them to come along, do their bit and die alongside the men. That “evil patriarchy” didn’t have a Big Government handing out endless subsidies to the needy. Instead, it had a family structure that protected women far better than today’s society, and laws that were designed to prioritize the care of those least able to defend or provide for themselves.

Some features of ancient societies described in the Bible seem weird to us. Occasionally this is because those societies were genuinely primitive and awful. The Bible tells us that, as when its writers refer with horror to the tribes who sacrificed their children to Moloch, or when the Israelites ignored the law of God and behaved wickedly. Most of the time, though, we find the Bible weird because we have not done enough Old Testament reading to have a good mental picture of how its people were obliged to live. Once we know more about that, some of the things that initially seem bizarre to us turn out to be perfectly logical responses to living conditions you and I have never experienced ... and would never want to.


  1. This is either a very strange question or a very relevant one. Actually I think it is probably both. Now why would anyone want to know why the. Bible is so anachronistic that it does not seem to fit in at all in what the world knows today. Never any mention of what current reality is - like a near infinit universe with near infinit numbers of stars, planets and rocks, never mentions the tentacled space aliens out there, or anything about the far side of the Moon, or global warming even though this is clearly all of God's script. How about it then. Why is the Bible so strange (or simply uninformative)? If you put an intelligence into that environment doesn't it deserve better? What's the plan with all that real estate and furniture?

  2. I think I know what you're getting at, Q, but we probably need some better examples. Global warming increasingly appears to be part of the Earth's normal routine, not the disaster it was claimed to be. None of the scary climate models we have been presented with to date reflect reality. They're not even close. And we have yet to encounter a tentacled space alien.

    You might also be surprised to find that Greek cosmology was quite sophisticated and comparatively modern. Many Greeks
    believed in a spherical Earth as early as 530 BC, and Greek astronomers had calculated its circumference accurate to within 15% by 200 BC. Yet Greeks came to Christ by the tens of thousands in the first century AD, seeing no apparent contradiction between the way they believed the universe to operate and what the Old Testament says about it. New Testament-era Greeks also believed in a very large universe, though they were perhaps a little more geocentric than modern secular scientists.

    Why, for the most part, does the Bible not talk about these things? Very simple: they are not its subject. It is not an astronomy textbook.

    1. That is kind of evading the issue. If I am able to see the entire timeline of human and material existence and there is an intelligent creation involved that I would like to have became aware of me AND the created environment in a loving and caring way I, from my perspective, would have to make the arrangements that that could happen by providing all the necessary information. The difficulty here is of course that the "necessary" is according to the creature's and the world's criteria. Therefore, unless one can buy into the concept that the only valid criteria are those provided sparsely by the builder (if you are willing to assume that he exists) one is stuck with the feeling that there is inadequate information to make the necessary leap of faith that should inform your daily living.

    2. I guess I fail to see how these relatively esoteric details have any real relevance to daily living. They are interesting curiosities, but that's about it. People managed to live fulfilled lives long before they even knew to ask some of these questions.

    3. What I am pointing out is that these questions are not esoteric but essential to the majority of people or we would not have the historical and current public discourse and climate concerning religion and Faith. My answer is that one has to make a decision in life, either the God of the Bible exists for you or he does not. If he does then the current state of affairs has to suffice for you and from the Bible you can see how you can and should influence it.