Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

October 3rd, 2012

In the church where I grew up, claiming that the Bible contradicted itself was the second-worst thing you could say (the worst thing was to suggest that everybody, not just our little branch of the Christian family tree, was going to heaven). Our primary strategy for dealing with sections of the Bible that didn’t exactly fit with one another was to ignore the problem. But once in a while someone would violate the unspoken rule that you left such questions unspoken (“hey, did you know that John says the crucifixion happened on the day of the Passover feast, but the other gospels say it happened the day after?”), and we would have to scramble to come up with an explanation. When that happened, we expended tremendous amounts of energy to insist that the Bible didn’t really say what it seemed to say, that any apparent disagreements or contradictions within the text were nothing of the sort.

A few years and more than a few hours reading and studying the Bible later I’ve come to see that such tensions and disagreements between one part of Scripture and another are not problems to be ignored or explained away; they are invitations to deeper study and understanding. Sometimes the disagreements are trivial and of concern only to those trying to hold on to particularly stringent understandings of biblical inerrancy. But others are more serious, and when they are they open the door to genuine moments of revelation.

Take, for instance, the story of King Solomon in 1 Kings 10-11. The story celebrates Solomon’s great wisdom, and paints a rich picture of the material success that wisdom gained for him. In 1 Kings 10:14 we learn that “the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred sixty-six talents of gold” (close to 25 tons). Further we read that Solomon had 300 shields of beaten gold, an ivory throne overlaid with gold, and that every three years a fleet of ships would bring him “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (10:22). What’s more, the king had 1400 chariots, with 12,000 horses to drive them. Clearly, Solomon was no slouch when it came to the swag department.

In chapter 11, we learn that, in spite of his wisdom and success, Solomon displeased God. How? By allowing his foreign wives (700 of them, plus 300 concubines) to set up shrines to their own gods, leading Solomon astray from the pure worship of YHWH. So 1 Kings’ picture of Solomon seems pretty clear, right? Solomon was wise, and God blessed him with success, until the king let his wives turn his heart away from worshiping God alone.

While I was reading 1Kings 10-11 recently, I experienced a moment of deja vu when I got to the part about all those chariots. “Where had I been reading about that?” I wondered. Then I remembered, and flipped back to 1 Samuel 8, where we find the story of Israel asking the prophet Samuel to give them a king. Samuel isn’t too keen on the idea, but God tells him to let the people have their monarch. While passing along this news, Samuel takes the opportunity to get in a dig: he says, in effect, “you can have your king, but don’t come whining to me when he takes your sons to drive his chariots and run in front of them (in other words, serve in his cavalry and infantry), and your daughters to work in his kitchen or his laundry.” Part of Samuel’s reluctance to establish an Israelite monarchy derives from the fact that kings take the sons and daughters people need to work the family farm and draft them into royal service, leaving their families destitute. In a small country with an agrarian economy, all those young people conscripted to work for the king–especially a king with 1400 chariots–could only lead to misery for a sizable portion of the population.

And when I was reading this again in 1 Samuel, I saw the note in my study Bible pointing back to Deuteronomy 17, which describes Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel on the eve of their entrance into the promised land. Moses tells the people that if they choose a king for themselves when they get to the other side, they’d better make sure that he doesn’t have a), too many horses (those critters that make the chariots go); b), too many wives; or c), too much gold.

Now, Deuteronomy 17 doesn’t quantify what it means by “too much.” But if column 1 represents “just enough,” and column 2 represents “more than enough,” I’d feel pretty confident assigning Solomon’s gold to column 29. And that, along with Samuel’s grumpiness toward kings and their habit of taking young people away from their families, sets up a pretty serious tension between Deuteronomy and 1 Samuel on the one hand, and 1 Kings on the other. Which leaves us with the question, “what are we going to do with that tension?”

Now, if this were my old church, we would deal with it by saying “what tension?” But you and I recognize that we owe Scripture more than that; we owe it an honest attempt to take this disagreement between two sections of the Old Testament seriously. Having admitted the tension between these parts of Scripture, a good next step would be to ask, “can the tension we experience between these biblical stories help us better understand them? Does one story shed new light on the others? Can the tension drive us back to the text, leading us to see things we’d missed?”

In the case of these three passages, we could ask whether any one of them feels different than the other two, if any of them make our “spider sense” start to tingle a bit. For the Deuteronomy passage, it’s easy to answer that question in the negative, because its advice is simple and easy to understand: don’t let the king allow being king to go to his head. For the 1 Samuel passage the question is a little more complicated. When the Israelites wanted a king, they were implicitly rejecting Samuel’s leadership–giving him a vested interest in criticizing the idea of monarchy. Nonetheless, his concern that the king and his elites would oppress the poor seems entirely logical.

That leaves us with the 1 Kings passage. Now, I don’t know about you, but something in that passage has always smelled funny to me. How could the ruler of a small, poor country like Israel amass that much wealth? Even if the king taxed the people unmercifully, the economy would collapse far before the king had time to gather all that gold. Nor does it make sense that other rulers would just give all that stuff to Solomon. In the ancient world that kind of money exchanged hands between kingdoms only when the smaller of the two wanted to bribe the larger into not invading–and tiny Israel never posed that kind of threat.

That discomfort with the story, along with the tensions between it and the other two passages, leads me to conclude the following: somewhere in the long process of writing and editing the book of Kings, someone who didn’t like the idea of monarchs lording it over their people slipped a comment into the back door of the Solomon story. While 1 Kings by and large remembers Solomon as a wise ruler, this editorial voice deliberately exaggerated Solomon’s material success in order to make a statement about kings in general — a statement not that dissimilar to the one we find in 1 Samuel. This voice is trying to tell us that maybe it wasn’t just Solomon’s wives who led him astray; maybe it was his wealth, which tends to lead all kings away from the path of righteousness.

And here’s the point: without the tension between 1 Kings on the one hand, and 1 Samuel and Deuteronomy on the other, we would not have been as likely to see this ironic element in the story of Solomon. If these two other passages had not, yes, contradicted 1 Kings, we might not have recognized the sly way in which 1 Kings comments on the abuse of power.

So, does the Bible contradict itself? In one sense, of course it does. The Bible is not one book after all, it is a library of books gathered, compiled, composed, and edited over the course of centuries. That one book or passage should disagree, even substantially, with another is only inevitable.

But in another sense we can say that when the Bible is contradicting itself it is at the same time conversing with itself. One text speaks to another, challenging it, probing it, shedding new light upon it. The internal conversation going on in Scripture creates some of the Bible’s most important messages. If the Bible speaks the word of God (and I believe it does), then it is above all a dynamic word. The truth of Scripture is not static; it is changing, it is growing, and where there is growth there is usually friction.

Do we find tension, disagreement, and even contradiction in the Bible? Yes. Is that tension there for a reason? Emphatically yes. Its purpose is to bring forth from these ancient texts the very word of God.      

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