We continue with our series by Ruth Tucker, and we want to know (as well) your best believe-it-or-not in the Bible.
by Ruth Tucker
Last week I focused on unbelievable stories in church history. What about all those believe-it-or-not stories in the Bible? And how do I as a historian assess them? I make the following confession in Parade of Faith:
This chapter on the New Testament era is foundational—the raison d’etre for the entire book. Without the first witnesses of Jesus there would be no church history. But the chapter is also unique in its source limitations because it is based on the biblical account without challenge to its historical accuracy.
I have often told my students that the freewheeling profession of historian is more suited to my temperament than that of biblical scholar and the constraints that go with it. . . . As a historical source book, the Bible stands alone. . . . I do not challenge its accuracy as I would other sources. So it is with this disclaimer that I offer the first chapter.
In college I struggled through a Biblical Studies minor, with doubts and questions none of my professors wanted to hear, much less respond to. One of the issues that troubled me was the canon. As a child, I had memorized—always from the KJV—that familiar verse from. 2 Tim. 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God. . . ..,” that verse as important as John 3:16.
But then in college I learned the New Testament canon was not “ratified” until 397 by the third Council of Carthage. Sure, it was long in coming. But even today I wonder why something so foundational to our beliefs wouldn’t have come through divine intervention (not to slight Bruce Metzger’s authoritative tome on the topic). God got directly involved on other matters. Indeed, the Ten Commandments came down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets.
Would it have been too much to expect a similar specificity on Patmos? Along with the 24 elders and 7 trumpets and bowls, why not add 27 books? Better yet, tag it on at the end of Revelation with the final warning: “If any man take away from [this 27-book canon] . . . God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” But no, we all had to wait to get ratification on the canon until the end of the fourth century. That’s why Luther could call for cutting it down to twenty-six. He didn’t trust the vote. Imagine him deleting a Commandment, calling for only nine.
Issues of the canon shifted into the matter of inerrancy. Out of college, I was actively involved as a pastor’s wife in two Independent Fundamentalist Bible Churches, where any concept of a Jesus Creed was traded for high octane inerrancy. We were Dispensationalists and most biblical difficulties could be explained away using that slide rule.
All that was during another life in the 1970s. Since then, depending on your perspective, I’ve either matured or I’ve tobogganed headlong down a slippery slope into a mushy swamp. Part of landing in the swamp has been my disdain for apologetics. Years ago I was troubled by many biblical passages and stories. No longer—not even those shocking verses in Matthew 27:
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[a] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
I do appreciate biblical scholars who try to make sense of what seems nonsensical, but it is a field of study that would not have been suited to me. Don’t get me wrong. My love for the Word of God is evident on every page of The Biographical Bible. It was a pleasure to research and write, and it’s an easy way for lay people to get a handle on the whole of Scripture. I seek to sort the laundry in separate piles through biography—as in pulling out characters who are tangled up in the dirty clothes baskets of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
In doing so, I accept the believe-it-or-not stories without trying to explain them away. Samson on steroids stands out, sometimes entertaining us as we howl with laughter: “So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose . . . [and] burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves. . . .” (Judges 15:4-5(NIV)). If I roll my eyes, the apologist hisses: Grow up! Palestinian foxes weren’t like American ones. They were tame, furry little creatures. Okay, I’m thinking, kind of like house cats who purr when you tie torches to their tails and send them out in pairs to burn down amber waves of grain. So that’s how it was. I get it. I can just picture the whole marathon. No more sleepless nights worrying about Samson and his 300 trained circus foxes.
Another animal story relates to Jacob’s complicated cattle-breeding algorithms on Uncle Laban’s ranch. Only the apologists try to make sense out of it. Better to just go with the flow of the speckled, spotted, striped story and focus on the sober account of fighting sisters in his bigamous marriage.
I conclude this post with the heated rivalry between Leah and Rachel (from Dynamic Women of the Bible), a reminder of Rodney Dangerfield’s line: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”
Leah, it seems, is scoring a goal every time she competes in this cutthroat baby-making game. Finally Rachel is down 4-0, and she’s furious. . . . She sends in a substitute, her servant Bilhah. . . .A son is born and Rachel names him Dan; then a second son whom Rachel names Naphtali. . . .The score now 4-2, Leah gets back into the game by sending in her own sub, her servant Zilpah, who scores twice more with Gad and Asher. Rachel is down by four. Now the game is 6-2 There are no screaming crowds, but the winning team is smug. True, the game is not over. Rachel is yet to score, Joseph first and then Benjamin, a goal that takes her life . . . [though before that happens, Leah] scores another goal with a little hockey puck she names Issachar. Then Zebulun is conceived. The score now stands at 8-4 (or 9-4, if baby girl Dinah is counted).