25 Comments
May 18Liked by Bentham's Bulldog

One way of perhaps comprehending the Bible is that it is a collection of various books: some meant to be strict histories, some meant to be more allegorical, and some poetic by nature. Ultimately, the way I perceive the Bible is a collection of inspired books that can lead one to understand the nature of God better. In our post-modern era, fundamentalism and strict, literal readings of ancient texts has led us to think that either the Bible is literally true in every sense and distinction or it is completely made-up.

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I think one can say this is “normal” way of interpreting the Bible, going back thousands of years even to Augustine. (It’s not at all a liberal compromise with modernity.)

Of course people centuries ago tended to think the bible is *more* historically accurate than most Christians would today. But people understood that much of it had to be allegory, it couldn’t all have happened exactly as stated, and could see conflicts with their understanding of natural science.

American evangelicals just have such an outsized cultural influence that the very unusual idea of biblical inerrancy has come to seem normal.

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May 18·edited May 18

A similar event of this nature happening three times on the bounce is highly improbable for a random dynasty. But the Old Testament isn't a collection of stories about what just so happened to occur to a random dynasty. It is about a dynasty chosen by God, who ordains the events of the world and particularly, perhaps, of this dynasty. This is where options 1 and 2 blend into one another: God might have ordained things such that these events did occur *so that* they could be recorded, tell a narrative, moral lesson, etc.

A lot of the Old Testament seems much less weird when viewed in a much bigger picture. This podcast (Mere Fidelity as a whole, but this episode in particular) is a good example of this in practice - I'd really recommend it, though it presumes a little familiarity with the OT (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-deception-of-isaac/id885758537?i=1000654121564). There's this quite profound way that the OT (less so than the NT) rewards deeper readings.

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agree, or maybe there were alot of different stories and the authors only included the most relevant ones (in the sense that they show moral teachings or something like that)

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I would reccomend the Bible Project podcast as a good source to learn more about specific parts of and themes in the Bible.

One thing you're missing here is that, not only is the repetition intentional, but there's actually way more repetition than you are even aware of on an initial read. A huge number of Bible stories are consciously meant to be retellings of the garden of Eden story-- the temple resembles the tabernacle that resembles the garden, for example. Another trope of this sort is Jacob taking the birthright of his brother Esau, which is later imitated by David and Saul, or between Judah and Israel.

The Biblical scribes understood what they are writing to be history, but literary devices take precedence over conveying fine details exactly as they happened. My favorite example is that Moses goes up and down to Mt. Sinai seven times in the Torah, which is unlikely to be literally the case but is numerologically significant.

There's plenty of say on why the Bible is like this, but essentially, it was meant to be read over and over again by devotees who would pick up on the subtext and "hyperlinks" between similar story elements. The idea that the same narrative arcs recur over and over again in Jewish history is exactly what the writers of the Bible intend to convey.

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I second this.

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I (Orthodox Christian) understand the Bible as a library of books of different genres written by normal, flawed humans struggling to comprehend God in a chaotic, warlike world. Is there some element of inspiration in the Bible? Sure, I'd say so, but with my tradition there's not an idea of a sort of Quranic word-for-word dictation. I'm lucky that we Orthodox don't worship a book, we take part in a lifestyle in which scripture is just one aspect. One thing I like to note is that a huge portion of Christians in history have probably been illiterate, so there's more going on than just the Book.

The Truths of the universe are in front of us but in a dark room. The bible doesn't tell us what's in the room, it helps us turn on the lights.

One guy's opinion. Keep up the good work!

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One way I often look at strange or seemingly immoral bible passages is through a sort of Moorean shift lens. For example, take Paul seemingly saying homosexuality is wrong. We have a set of jointly inconsistent propositions:

1. Christianity is true

2. If Christianity is true then anything the bible says is true.

3. The bible says that homosexuality is wrong.

3. Homosexuality isn't morally wrong.

So you have to reject at least one. 4 is much more obvious than 2 and 3, and so you should certainly not reject 4. And so, depending on how probable you think Christianity is, you should reject 2 or 3.

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> Paul seemingly saying homosexuality is wrong

Where? Could you cite it?

I was recently trying to figure out whether the Bible actually says that homosexuality is wrong and was surprised how unclear it actually is on the matter.

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The old testament says homosexuality is wrong. lev 20,13

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So, I guess a pretty popular place to cite is Romans 1:26-27:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

But as I said, it just *seemingly* says that homosexuality is wrong. But it is at least more probable that this passage can be reinterpreted than that homosexuality is wrong, and this you should not conclude that homosexuality is wrong.

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It seems far more probable that our initial judgements about the morality of homosexual acts is wrong, given that Christianity is true, the frequency of apparent condemnation of such acts in both the OT and NT, *AND* the 'recentness' of Proposition 4. Proposition 4 is an extremely 'recent' belief in human history, at least in the sheer prevalence of it in the West; I doubt most that have the intuition today would've had it, e.g., in 1900, 30–100 AD, let alone 1000+ BC.

Even outside of Biblical hermeneutics, it's possible to endlessly create auxiliary assumptions to support a theory; attempts to allegorize, or explain away, NT and OT condemnations as *not really* condemning same-sex sexual activity strike me as just that—forced auxiliary hypotheses.

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Proposition 4 is not recent at all. Recent in Christian Europe exactly because of Christianity, but other cultures did recognize 4.

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David Bentley Hart along with other scholars have argued that the bible was never meant to be understood as a literal historical account, nor an infallible oracle. The church father's would have been baffled by such an approach to scripture.

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As is argued, it is *also* the case that bible makes no sense as allegory or metaphor on many occasions.

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There's a lot of church fathers, and a lot of books that didn't make it into the canon. Here we are!

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Sarah was Abraham's wife but she was also his half-sister. So definitely not a stretch for Abraham to call her his sister. And Rebecca was Isaac's first cousin once removed, so calling her his sister is definetely a stretch.

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I would recommend reading Robert Alter's Bible translation and/or other books on Biblical literature.

His angle is basically a combination of 2 and 3. The Bible is a compilation of different takes on a combination of history, legend, and myth, but the writers and editors were not total idiots and there's often some significance behind things like repetitive stories.

In addition to that, as other people have pointed out, the evangelical/fundamentalist approach to understanding inspiration is not necessarily normative.

See, for instance:

https://open.substack.com/pub/addisonhodgeshart/p/the-bible-what-it-is-and-how-it-should

and https://open.substack.com/pub/addisonhodgeshart/p/lectio-divina-part-1

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> It’s weird in the way an ancient anthology of similar documents is weird, not in the way the word of God is weird!

You are completely correct - Bible is quite weird, especially the old testament. Please, focus on this weirdness, on how bizarre it would be to assume that it's indeed literally the word of God, how many ridiculous bullets one has to swallow to do it, notice your confusion about how people can think something like that, and hold it in your mind tight, while reading the rest of my comment.

Bible is definitely not the first book that come to mind when you think about the holy scripture written by the Omnibenevalent God to its creation. But neither is this universe the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the one created by the Omnibenevalent God and yet it didn't stopped you before. So, what's preventing you from applying the same mode of thinking that you use to justify theism in general to the Christianity in particular?

Surely, Omnibenevalent God would put a lot of nonsense in the Holy Scripture, so that the Universe appeared to be naturally designed, for the same reason why He made the universe look as if its naturally designed in the first place? If Omnibenevalent God creates all possible universes with all possible conscious beings, then obviously in some of the universes the Holy Book would be extremely weird, right? Otherwise, people from the universes with weird Holy Scripture wouldn't exist which makes our own existence less likely. So God would create universes with all the possible permutations of Holy Scripture that would still appear as if they are written by inhabitants of this universe. And as most of such permutations are more or less crazy, it's no surprise that our version is somewhat crazy as well. Therefore the fact that Bible is weird is actually evidence in favor of Christianity being true religion.

Has this just explained away your initial confusion? Or are you even more confused now, because it seems that you can justify literally anything God-related at this point?

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May 21·edited May 21

Hi Bentham - first time commenter here. There's another possibility with these stories - that they were deliberately edited into a memorable narrative for an oral culture. The Abraham narrative (and also the Jacob and Joseph narratives) have what's known as a chiastic structure - they are a symmetric nest of stories with the main point of the narrative at the centre. This was largely unknown when most of the earlier Bible Criticism was in fashion, but more recently there has been renewed interest in how the biblical authors structured their works. The Abraham Narrative looks as follows:

A. Genealogy of Terah (11:27-32)

B. Birth of a Nation and the start of Abram's Spiritual Journey (12:1-9)

C. Abram lies about Sarai: God protects them in a Foreign Court (12:10-20)

D. Abram chooses land by Faith; Lot chooses Sodom by Sight (13)

E. Abram Intercedes for Sodom and Lot in War (14)

F. Covenant with Abram and Annunciation of Ishmael (15-16)

F'. Covenant with Abraham and Annunciation of Isaac (17:1-18:15)

E'. Abraham Intercedes for Sodom and Lot in Prayer (18:16-33)

D'. Lot flees doomed Sodom and settles in Moab (19)

C'. Abraham lies about Sarah; God protects them in a foreign court (20)

B'. Birth of Isaac and the Climax of Abraham's Spiritual Journey (21:1-22:19)

A'. Genealogy of Nahor (22:20-24)

The death of Sarah (23), the story of how Isaac meets Rebekah (24) and the death of Abraham (25:1-11) are treated as an epilogue.

What you want to look for is not how similar the lying stories are, but how they differ. The focal point of the narrative is Abram enters into covenant with 'The LORD' and has his name changed. Before this, Abram lies about Sarai in Egypt, and she joins the harem. God uses apparent natural causes to overturn their circumstances. In Philistia, she does not join the harem and God deliberately warns Abimelech not to touch her - why? Abraham and Sarah are now in covenant with God. The focus is the covenant and the stories are illustrative of what happened before and after that event, and how the characters changed in the process.

The Isaac story is longer and involves a pact between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen 26). This is worked into a similar symmetry, paired and horribly contrasted with a deceitful pact involving Jacob's sons and the men of Shechem (Gen 34), centering around Jacob's wives and flocks being fertile (Gen 29-30) as part of the Jacob narrative (Gen 25:19-35:29). The sons are deceitful like their father, who learns his lesson by the end of that story. It takes the Joseph narrative to deal with the deceitful brothers.

There's a lot of this in the Old Testament: in some cases entire books are chiasmic (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) or are made of multiple chiasms (Joshua (3 of them), Daniel (2 of them)). The Genesis flood narrative is also a large chiasm. Hope this is of some help if only from a literary perspective.

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I want to defend the narrative hypothesis. I don't think it is responsible for the existence of thus triplicate, but it could explain why the editor didn't cut it:

The story probably made a lot more sense to iron age herders than postmodern intilgentia. After all, otherwise the basic story wouldn't have become so popular that it entered Genesis truce. There is also a clear lesson: Trust God and protect your families honor instead of coming up with an alternative plan. These themes would hit home to early Bible readers.

Reduplication is frequently used by biblical authors to emphasise a certain point. Including near copies of the same story could help drive home the idea that these events weren't just one wierd thing that happened, it's a pattern that you need to look out for to not fall into.

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Regarding the Canaanite stuff, I recommend Gavin Ortlund's recent two videos on these things. They're excellent.

I don't know about these specific passages (there's a lot of passages I don't know about or don't know the explanation of because the Bible is huge). But on its face, I think it might be a type of analogy to how Israel (and humans in general) tend to make the same mistakes and sins over and over again. Doesn't mean they didn't literally happen, though.

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Answer 3 would be correct. The Scriptures are valuable but inerrant they are not. I think the newer writings (e.g. the New Testament) are much more reliable as records but would add that the Gospel of John, though magnificent, does seem to feature s fair amount of possibly invented material.

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May 18·edited May 18

How does that affect the infallibility of the Bible? What the Bible says is what the Bible says, and everyone agrees that the Bible is the Bible, until they don't, at which point it isn't the Bible.

The infallibility of the Bible happens in the space between the people and the Bible. It seems weird because you aren't in that space, you're just sort of floating around outside it.

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Why don’t you try Talmudic interpretations? Christian have to twist the Old Testament to suggest Christ, a Messiah that simply did not bring Israel redemption. Jewish interpretation is often straightforward. I really enjoyed the Guide for the Perplexed (Maimonides), Major trends of Jewish Mysticism (Scholem), Four Talmudic lessons (Levinas) and there is a book by Hilary Putnam on Judaism (I have not read it, but is is Putnam).

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