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Yes, Contradictions Exist in the Bible, for They Exist in Ourselves


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Yes, Contradictions Exist in the Bible, for They Exist in Ourselves

Commentary by Walter Hesford | FāVS News

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

So declares Walt Whitman toward the close of his sprawling 1855 poem, “Song of Myself.” It is simultaneously earthy and transcendent, alternately egocentric and empathetic.

Whitman, great poet that he was, maybe contained more multitudes, more contradictions, than most of us. But we are all complex, with competing duties, needs, hopes and opinions, which, if we are open to evolving realities, may well change over the years.

And if we are complex and changing, why wouldn’t the Bible, more than a thousand years in the making, also be? It certainly contains multitudes.

I know that many conservative Christians believe that the Bible tells one big saving story and work hard to harmonize all its smaller stories and its testimonies. I think a harmonized Bible does not do justice to what it has to offer.

Oppositional Perspectives May Both Be True

The Bible offers oppositional perspectives. For example, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) offers both conventional and challenging wisdom. The former holds that if one is a good person and obeys God’s law, one is rewarded with a good life. This perspective is voiced, for example in Psalm I, according to which those who delight in the law prosper in all they do.

The Book of Proverbs makes similar claims. “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous,” asserts Proverbs 13:10.

The Book of Job challenges this wisdom. In the midst of his suffering, friends of Job try to comfort him with proverbial wisdom. But his own experience shows it be wrong.

Proverbs 6:6 advises lazy folk to look to the ant as the model of a diligent worker who thrives. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, proclaims that however diligent we may be, however much we may temporarily gain, all is vanity, all is emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and throughout).

Why does the Bible include these oppositional perspectives in its wisdom literature? Perhaps because both may be true. Perhaps diligence and righteousness often are rewarded. But sometimes they are not. Sometimes, as Rabbi Harold S. Kushner pointed out in his 1981 book, “… Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

So in drawing wisdom from the Bible and our lives, we need to use discernment and not think one truth can fit all occasion.

Oppositional Perspectives May Reflect Changing Culture

Sometimes oppositional perspectives in the Hebrew Bible reflect historical and cultural shifts, which is only natural since it contains literature developed from around 1,000 B.C.E. to around 100 B.C.E.

For example, the prophet book of Nahum, written during the seventh century B.C.E., calls for the destruction of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, an imperial oppressor of Israel. The prophetic book of Jonah calls for compassion upon this same city. Jonah was written centuries later, long after Assyria was a threat.

Another example: Ancient Israel developed a radically monotheistic theology. All actions, both good and bad, were attributed to God. According to 2 Samuel 24:1, God inspires King David to conduct a census, considered a wicked act, probably since it led to military conscription.

When this same event is presented centuries later in 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan does the inspiring. By this time the elite of influence had come under the influence of Babylonian dualistic theology.

The grand account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis also reflects familiarity with Babylonian theology, according to which the king is made in God’s image. Genesis 1 has all humanity made in God’s image by his word. Genesis 2 presents a much earlier, folkloric creation story, in which Yahweh (aka the LORD) makes man out of dust, then woman out of man’s rib.

Great efforts are made to harmonize these two creation accounts, but why not explore what each has to offer?

We Can Learn from Different Biblical Accounts from Even the New Testament

Similar efforts are made to harmonize the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, probably written between C.E. 50 and C.E. 100. But these gospels, written for different faith communities, reflect and foster differing views of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. Why not respect these differences and learn from them?

Similarly, the letters of Paul and other New Testament writers express divergent opinions on many issues, including class and gender equality. Maybe the most important opinion is that all distinctions among people should disappear (see Galatians 3:28).

Bible believers are often portrayed as being narrow-minded. But those who open the Bible can be broad minded as they read with discernment its multitudinous stories and testimonies. This should lead to an acceptance of the differing perspectives of others and within ourselves.

The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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Paul Graves
Paul Graves
1 month ago

Thanks again for your insights, Walter. This topic is a hard one, at least in part because the so-called “inerrancy” of the Bible is so deeply ingrained in some people’s belief system. When we can’t tolerate contradiction, we miss out on so much! Glad you point out those contradictions in respectful but clear ways.

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