The bible is full of simplistic statements masquerading as God-given theological doctrines. Many of them are naïve and palpably false.
Why do plagues occur? According to 2 Samuel 24, plagues occur if we conduct a census. It says God punished Israel severely with a plague because David imprudently conducted a census of the nation. Some 70,000 Israelites were killed as a result.
How do we stop a plague? Plagues can be stopped by offering a sacrifice. David stopped the plague by offering a sacrifice at the threshing floor. (2 Samuel 24:18-25).
In 2 Chronicles 21:10, we are told the Edomites revolted against Judah’s rule because Jehoram had forsaken the Lord? But can this really be the reason why the Edomites rebelled? Did the Edomites even know or care that Jehoram had forsaken the Lord? Are there not more cogent “actual” reasons why the Edomites rebelled? Even from a theological perspective, is it not simplistic to insist bad things automatically happen in this life to those who forsake the Lord?
Let use this dogma in understanding contemporary history. Why did the terrorists attack the “twin towers” of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001? They did because George Bush forsook the Lord. Why did they not attack a similarly prominent building in France at the time? It must be because Jacques Chirac, then president of France, did not forsake the Lord.
Surely there are more cogent social and political reasons why the terrorists attacked the twin towers in New York. Similarly, there must be more cogent reasons why the Edomites rebelled against Judah under Jehoram.
The bible’s presentation is naïve and cannot be historically accurate. Moreover, according to Jesus, it cannot be theologically accurate either. Jesus dealt with this kind of nonsense masquerading as religious dogma when he was asked if a man was blind from birth because of his sins or those of his parents. He told his disciples the presumption that bad things happen because of our sins is a fallacy. (John 9:1-3; see also Luke 13:1-5).
This means if we base our faith on some of the precepts of the bible, we can be misled. If we are not careful, the bible can easily make us superstitious. It is imperative therefore to recognise that our faith should be based on the word of Jesus. It is Jesus and not the bible that is the infallible word of God.
The bible says Jehoram’s sin was in marrying Ahab’s daughter; leading to the rebellion of the Edomites. (2 Kings 8:18). Therefore, we have this great biblical lesson: “A man who marries the daughter of an evil man will come to ruin.” Better still, we can create a proverb out of this: “A wise king marries the daughter of a righteous man.” “The king who marries the daughter of an evil man brings disaster upon his kingdom.” This becomes a spiritual object lesson derived from bible “history.”
But then the same bible goes to great lengths to contradict this simplistic view of history and theology. It does this most eloquently in the book of Job.
For illustration, Proverbs makes a categorical statement that the whirlwind is fashioned to destroy the wicked: “The fear of the wicked will come upon him, and the desire of the righteous will be granted. When the whirlwind passes by, the wicked is no more, but the righteous has an everlasting foundation.” (Proverbs 10:24-25). This is presumed to be the word of God by those Christians who insist everything in the bible is true.
But this same doctrine is contradicted by the experience of righteous Job whose children were killed by a whirlwind. (Job 1:18-20). Job had been taught, like most Christians still are today, that bad things only happen to bad people. Therefore, he spends his time questioning God. He complains that he has lived a righteous life and yet is rewarded with adversity.
Moreover, Job’s friends torment him with the classical but bankrupt biblical principle that bad things don’t happen to good people. They ask: “Whoever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off?” (Job 4:7-9). Job ends up by using himself as evidence that the ways of God are mysterious and that in this world there is no watertight correlation between cause and effect. He notes that God “destroys the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22), and concludes that God’s providence follows no logical or discernible pattern.
In effect, the inclusion of Job in the bible serves as a critique of the bible. It also serves as an indictment of those who hold the simplistic theological dogma that is often presented as wisdom in the Old Testament:
God offers Job no explanation for bringing adversity upon him. He simply makes him understand that his wisdom and judgment cannot be questioned by mere mortals. He asks Job: “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” “What do you know, and what do you really understand?” The solution to Job’s problem is to trust God whatever the situation or the circumstance.
The ways of God cannot be neatly programmed by the application of the wisdom tradition of Judaism prevalent in the bible. That tradition is too simplistic and dogmatic. It is not possible to understand God’s actions and inactions using such doctrines. But through faith in God and humble acceptance of his providence, God rescues Job from the hollowness of the wisdom tradition. He then descends in judgement upon his friends who used their ignorance to condemn him.
This is similar to Jesus’ admonition of the Pharisees: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
In short, we can use the bible to critique the bible without diminishing our faith. The bible is full of simplistic statements masquerading as God-given theological doctrines. Many of them are naïve and palpably false. Here is one example: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25). But are the righteous never forsaken?
Here is a contradiction, penned also by David and validated on the cross by Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus was righteous, nevertheless, he was forsaken on the cross.
There are a host of others in Proverbs. “The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry.” (Proverbs 10:3). This is false. “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” (Proverbs 13:21). Observe that Jeremiah has a completely different point of view. He asks: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jeremiah 12:1).
We don’t only get these false “truisms” in the Old Testament. Paul’s epistles is also full of them. Only one example here should suffice: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Think about this so-called scripture for a minute. You will immediately realise it is not true as a general rule. Therefore, it cannot be the word of God.