Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Reading the Bible...

Girl Reading with Joy
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
To give people a rough idea of the prayerful reasoning process I might go through in studying the Bible (keeping in mind that I strive to use scripture to interpret scripture, interpret all passages through the teachings of Jesus, use the clear to interpret the obscure, strive to understand language and context, etc), I offer the following...

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?


Alan said...

I'm shocked but glad to see the rage-o-philes haven't jumped all over this.

Maybe the spirit of the holiday season has made their hearts grow two sizes plus one. :)

In any event, it is our Judeo-Christian heritage to do what you're showing in this blog post. Scripture isn't a problem to be solved, it's God's Word that we're meant to engage with.

But anything more difficult than the rules for tic-tac-toe is likely too complicated for some to figure out. They want simple, easy to digest McNuggets of Gody sounding wisdom fed to them ... the bloodier the better.

Dan Trabue said...

Please, Alan, as a favor to my mom, if you can't say something nice about them, don't say anything at all about them.

Thank you for the support, nonetheless. Merry Christmas!

Alan said...

That *was* nice compared to what I really think. ;)

Edwin Drood said...

its exodus 20:4 by the way not Exodus 34.

and it is repeated back to God by Moses in Numbers 4:18

The specific sin is bowing down to idles

Seems pretty concrete to me

Ezekiel 18, says a man will be spared death in his sins if he does not worship idles like his father did. It doesn't say the son will not have to deal with punishment on earth for his fathers sin.

Not that I'm going to get drawn into a really long and pointless debate with you on this, but it is really funny that you are now re-interpreting the 10 commandments.

Rob Toney said...

As always with this blog- a light has come on inside my mind. Thanks Dan!

I do think it may be a mistake to view God's interaction with us as anyhting more complicated than the rules for tic-tac-toe. The "word" often seems to get in the way of the "voice" within. That may make me a lazy thinker, or maybe a more nimble one. I don't know.

Dan Trabue said...

Hey Rob! Always good to hear from you.

Dan Trabue said...

Edwin said...

its exodus 20:4 by the way not Exodus 34.


"Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Exodus 34:7

You're welcome.

Edwin also said...

The specific sin is bowing down to idles [idols, I think he means]

Seems pretty concrete to me

And again, ahem...

Exodus 34, in context:

So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.

Yet [God] does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

I believe, in context, that passage is speaking of obeying God's rules in general. Not specifically idols. Although I'm not sure how that would change my point - I don't believe it does.

And it IS obscure/unclear because of how unreasonable it appears. God will punish a great grandchild because of an ancestor's sin?? Really??

Is that what you think, Edwin? It IS what it literally says, but do you believe that literally God punishes the descendants of sinners for sins they (the descendants) did not commit?

No, I'm not reinterpreting the ten commandments. I'm doing Bible study. In studying the Bible, in this case, we see (at least) two verses which seem to contradict each other. So, a serious student of the Bible has to ask, "What does this mean? DOES God punish people for others' sins - as Exodus 34 clearly literally says - or does God NOT do so - as the Ezekiel passage clearly literally says.

One of these is not literally correct, Edwin. Which one do you reject/reinterpret?

Alan said...

See, Dan, I'm learning. :)

Dan Trabue said...

We can all learn, I reckon. It just takes some of us longer than others...

Thanks, Alan.

Marshall Art said...

This really doesn't help your argument for how you interpret anything. These three areas don't really connect at all, as I explained at my blog when you raised this issue. Ex.34 has only two rational explanations: Either it speaks of the consequences borne by offspring of a sinner, at which you hint, or, that the sinful practice gets passed along to the next generations and God continues to punish until correction takes place. I would suggest the first is most likely as it still happens all the time, and certainly did when God punished the whole of Israel for transgressions of MOST of the people (surely not all were disobedient, just as not even the babes of Sodom could have been "guilty" of the sins of their fathers.)

Ezekiel then gets more specific in that it states explicitly that one who commits the sin will die, but not the descendants if they are not likewise involved in committing that sin.

But then, the story of the blind man has nothing whatever to do with either Ex or Ez as it is speaking to the reason a man might suffer from blindness when his parents had not sinned at all.

Nice try, though.

Dan Trabue said...

Exodus 34 (God speaking about God's Self):

"The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin;

yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers' wickedness!"

PUNISHING children for their father's wickedness, in the NAB. "Visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children" in the NASB and KJV.

"God punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers" in the NIV.

Taken literally, this says that God punishes the children for their fathers' sins. You're suggesting we ought not take it literally?

Then you and I agree.

This is my whole point. Some passages are obviously not to be taken literally. Why? Well, one reason would be when they conflict with other, more clear passages.

You are suggesting that this ought to be read non-literally - you are interpreting it to mean something other than the literal words suggest. Good for you. You are correct to do so, I'd suggest.

Now, on what possible basis would you choose to interpret "God said, 'kill innocents'" literally? And if you and I both agree not to take this passage literally, why do you give so much grief when I do the same thing as you for another passage?

Marshall Art said...

He never said that, did He? No, of course not. There is not even an approximation of such a statement. This is just something you like to say to demonize the position we take in interpreting clearly stated presentations of events in the Bible. Yet, that innocents, by the definition you choose to use in these discussions, might suffer the consequences of the sins of their fathers and those consequences might be physical death, is not the same as being held responsible for those sins. It is not the same as sharing in the guilt of the father having committed those sins. And again, I would suggest to you that in Ezekiel it is not a physical death being described.

So there are two different things being discussed in the passages you link together. Punishment can take many forms. Collateral damage, as in my example of the victim of a drunk driver, isn't exactly a reward. If a man leads a sinful life, his children can indeed pay a price for that sinfulness and it happens every day. Are they not enduring a punishment without being guilty of the father's sin?

Furthermore, you pick and choose just what you mean by "literal". In one case it's the message, in another the words used in the message. Whatever fits your socialist position is the definition you use.

And BTW, Alan hopes to make Scripture just complicated enough to justify his twisted beliefs. Scripture IS rather simple to understand because it was intended for everyone and not just psuedo-scholars of the 20th century liberal variety. The venom from his dark heart does not poison me. Let him be himself since we all know already the quality of character.

Alan said...

Actually MA, in spite of your blathering on, I don't make Scripture complicated. I believe that attempting to know the mind of God through his Word while we see through sin-darkened lenses is already complicated enough. You may have confidence in your perfection to perfectly understand Scripture, but I don't have any confidence in your ability to understand ... well ... anything at all, actually. Frankly, I'm amazed any time you leave a comment that you're able to string a few letters together to form words.

Unlike you, who believes that Scripture is simply a Dick and Jane first grade primer, I agree with our historical confessions which say:

"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."

From the Westminster Confession of Faith.

When it comes to traditional, orthodox understandings of the Christian faith, I hope you'll understand, MA if I take the Westminster Confession of Faith more seriously than your pathetic yapping.

BTW, "venom from his dark heart" was a particularly hilariously melodramatic turn of phrase. I think however, that you should lay off the Twilight books for a while. You're starting to write like a 10 year old girl.

Marshall Art said...

Sorry, Alan. Don't read Twighlight books and I also don't think you could keep up with the average ten-year old girl. I also don't waste too much time being insulted by the likes of such as you, who would rather snark than actually debate or discuss. And as far as understanding goes, yours is suspect if you truly think your lifestyle is in any way blessed, justified or tolerated by God. I still pray for you and your enablers (Dan) and hope the best for you. Until then, you are what you are is so many ways and your insults don't surprise or intimidate in any way. I can deal with such back and forth quite easily. Take your best shot.