Sunday, December 6, 2009
On Reading the Bible...
1. The Bible says,
"yet [God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." Exodus 34
2. This passage says God will punish even the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for a man's sin.
3. This would be an example of an unclear or obscure passage. God punishes children for the sins of their parents?? That doesn't make sense, can it possibly mean that literally??
So what do we do? We weigh it against all of scripture and against Jesus' teachings. We strive to understand context. We interpret the unclear through the clear.
4. So, we look further and see that the Bible also says,
"Yet you say, 'Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity? [as per Exodus 34 -dan]' When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.
"The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity..." Ezekiel 18
5. THIS passage quite clearly says God WILL NOT punish the children for the sins of the father.
6. Now pay close attention: IF we take BOTH of these passages literally, then they contradict one another. That would send a mixed message about God. SOMETIMES God punishes children for their parent's sin. Sometimes God is quite clear that this will NOT happen.
7. Do you think God is of two minds on this notion? More importantly, do we have any reason to believe God does things one way sometimes and the opposite way other times? I don't.
8. What does Jesus have to say about this notion of punishing children for parent's sin?
When Jesus is presented with a blind man, the disciples ask if he was blind for his own sins or for his parent's sins? This seems to be a clear reference to the popular notion then that the sick and disabled were ill because of - as a punishment for - someone's sin. Jesus rejects this notion, saying,
"Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him." John 9
Jesus is very much about personal responsibility. What YOU DO for the least of these, what YOU DID NOT DO for the least of these. There is nothing in Jesus' teachings (that I can think of) that support the notion that innocent children are punished for their parent's sins.
9. AND SO, we have referenced the obscure passage with other passages throughout the Bible, and through Jesus' specific teaching. Additionally, we can take the obscure/hard to understand passage (the notion of God punishing the innocent for someone else's sin just seems quite contrary to our innate sense of Justice and Righteousness) and look at it through the clear (Ezekiel's "the soul that sinneth shall die..." - which makes logical sense, whereas the Exodus 34 passages don't) and all of that adds up to my conclusion that God does NOT punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. Ezekiel is quite clear and supported by the rest of the Bible.
10. CONCLUSION: God does NOT punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. This would be an example of a Big Truth - one of the important conclusions we ought to draw from the Bible and from our own reasoning.
11. So, now what do we do with the passages like Exodus 34 (and there are others) that seem to conflict with Ezekiel and the Big Truth? MUST we reject it as "obviously" wrong and thus suggest that the Bible is unreliable?
I don't think so. We can do many things with such a passage. We can try to reinterpret it, in light of the CLEAR teaching. For instance, the notion of punishing others for the sins of the father COULD just be a figurative way of explaining the ripple effect of sin, the natural consequences of sin. A father who is sinful in that he is abusive towards his children MIGHT have the result of causing emotional problems with his children, which in turn, might cause emotional problems with THEIR children.
This is an EXTREMELY rational explanation of a passage that, taken literally, does not make sense AND conflicts with clear biblical teaching. Now, by taking it in this OTHER way, that does not mean that we are rejecting the Bible, just that we are seeking truth.
12. In fact, we might even say, "well, I don't know WHAT Exodus 34 means, but CLEARLY, it can't mean that God punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. That doesn't make sense, biblically or logically. It must mean something else."
We CAN leave it at that. We don't have to be able to explain everything - including the odd and obscure - in the Bible to understand the clear. The Big Truths in the Bible are abundantly clear, it seems to me.
13. And so, we have established the Biblical "Big Truth" that God does not punish the innocent for the guilty's crimes. And then, we come across a story which does appears to have an example of just that. A story where God commands Israel to destroy a city - and specifically including the children therein - and this story SEEMS to conflict with the Big Truth that we have already established.
Now what? What do we do with such a story?
14. Well, we don't HAVE to do anything with it. We can say, "Well, I don't know what it means, but clearly it can't mean that God punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty - that contradicts clear Biblical teaching and obvious logical notions of Goodness and Justice.
15. But we don't have to do that. We can also try to explain it. We can, for instance, recognize THE CONTEXT of the writing - what STYLE it was written in. These stories occur in sections of the Bible that tell historical sorts of stories, BUT it was written in a day when such histories were not written like they are today. Back then - in prehistoric times - stories were often passed on in Legendary, Mythical or Epic storytelling conventions. In these conventions, the details aren't always factual, as they are not the point of the story. OFTEN (always in ancient writings??) histories were told to impress a point(s) upon the listeners.
IF that is what happened here (and it seems a reasonable conclusion since:
A. That's the storytelling style of that time period, and
B. Taking it literally would conflict with clear biblical truth)
Then perhaps the point of the story is NOT to say, "This is what actually factually happened, detail for detail," but rather to refinforce Truths such as "God is with the oppressed," or "God is with God's people when they are faithful to God," or other such truths.
This seems the most logical, likely explanation for biblical stories such as these and a literal interpretation would conflict with clear biblical teaching, so on what basis would we do anything OTHER than assume that they are SOMEHOW figurative (ie, I'm not saying that's the one and only True Way of interpreting that passage, just that it's a logical biblical conclusion - whereas assuming it's literal is neither logical nor biblical)?
THAT would be the process I use for studying such a passage.
So, given how extremely logical and biblical this process seems to me, on what basis would I reject what seems to be the most Godly biblical explanations and assume someone else is right?