This weekend, we will be wrestling with what it means for the Bible to be our authoritative guide for how to live as Christians when some things in the Bible were written in a different era when people didn’t have the scientific information they do today. Some Christians hold to a position of Biblical inerrancy, which means different things to different people but basically means that the Bible has to be without error in any claims that it makes like Methusaleh’s lifespan of 969 years, for example. There’s an atheist who made cartoon videos about Noah’s ark poking fun at some of the logistical issues in the story if we try to make it historical like the number of inches of rain per second that would have to fall on every square inch of the Earth for 40 days and 40 nights to raise the global sea level over the top of Mt. Everest. But there are two verses in the Old Testament that are problematic to Biblical inerrantists for a different reason: they make God look like one of the capricious ancient mythological deities from whose stories the Bible may have been originally derived.
The first verse happens at the close of the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge. God has already proclaimed curses on the serpent, woman, and man. But then God gets nervous about what the man and woman might do: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ (Genesis 3:22).” Here’s the big problem with this verse. If we take it literally, we have to throw out everything that Paul says in the New Testament about the relationship and utter categorical divide between God as creator and us as creatures. If all that we have to do to become immortal like God is eat a particular fruit, then God is not the source of being but merely an immortal being whom we could become exactly like if we just found the right fruit.
Furthermore, this verse confirms what the serpent said to Eve in Genesis 3:4-5 about God’s motives in forbidding her and Adam from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that it. The God in this verse is more like a capricious deity from the Greek pantheon who wants to defend his turf of immortality from the encroachment of mortals than the eternal, entirely self-sufficient, omnipotent God I preach about who never stops his loving pursuit of a humanity that is constantly blowing him off and rebelling against him. How can God say we’ve got to stop those humans from spending eternity in communion with us? The gift of eternal life is the one thing God wants to give us; that’s why He sent us Jesus.
A similar verse comes up in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The story is supposed to explain why the world is filled with different languages. In the story, all the people in the world have the same language. They decide to build a tower to heaven. When you’re a little kid watching a video about the story, it makes sense that God would have to stop them because God lives in the clouds. At about the thousandth floor, they would have reached the pearly gates. But when you get a little older, you realize that “heaven” doesn’t mean God actually lives in the sky.
The way to make the story work for adults is to moralize it, to say that the tower builders were being arrogant or something. The problem is that God’s response to the tower builders isn’t moralistic. He feels threatened by humanity’s power: “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language there, so they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).
God wants to stop humanity because “nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them.” There’s nothing in there proclaiming judgment on the peoples’ arrogance, presumptuousness, or anything else. We have to eisegete it into the text. Now let me say that this is actually a brilliant text to preach on. But you can’t take God’s speech at face value. And the message is going to be offensive to Biblical inerrantists.
Nothing made my fundamentalist former worship leader more angry than my sermon on Pentecost comparing and contrasting the multilingual chaos of Pentecost with the hegemonic univocity of Babel. That was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Because the story of the Tower of Babel judges those who want every verse in the Bible to have only one meaning so they can figure it out perfectly and build themselves a tower of doctrine right up to the pearly gates. Pentecost in all its chaos is the story of the Spirit who “blows where it wants to and you hear the sound of it but nobody knows where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).
To be clear, I believe that “the Bible is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I believe that the Holy Spirit has a teaching purpose for every verse in scripture, which is different than saying that everything is historically and biologically accurate. I suspect that the two verses I’ve mentioned are holdovers from ancient polytheistic sources that some of the Bible is derived from. The Bible was not written from scratch, because nothing ever is. I believe that God used and modified the myths that were predominant in the cultures surrounding the ancient Israelites to develop the stories that would tell the truth about Him. A huge influence on me in this regard was Peter Enns’ Incarnation and Inspiration. He got fired from Westminster seminary for writing it, but his framework provides a way of honestly engaging ancient Near Eastern scholarship and archaeology while maintaining a commitment to the Bible’s inspired teaching.
It’s kind of like when preachers tell stories in their sermons (that aren’t historically true) to illustrate an eternal truth. I’ve always been a bit skiddish about making something up and presenting it as biography, but I did it last weekend. I amalgamated a character out of a combination of my grandpa and Uncle Hank and named him “Uncle Charlie” and I made up a story about him saying “I am who I am” (like God says in the burning bush to Moses) in response to getting fussed out by my grandma for telling an inappropriate joke at Christmas dinner.
Did my grandpa and Uncle Hank tell inappropriate jokes at family meals? Yes sometimes. And if you confronted either of them about their south Texas cowboy idiosyncrasies, they would say something like “I am who I am.” But for the sake of the sermon, Uncle Charlie had to say exactly what God said, which he never did because he was a made-up character. If I took great pains to make sure that I was being absolutely historically factual in talking about my life without smoothing out any detail for the sake of flow, then my sermons would suck horribly. Narrative, to be narrative, is always fictional to some degree because the way reality happens is not according to a coherent continuous stream of interpretation. But we only have access to narrative because we never experience any reality that is unnarrated by our thoughts.
So why did the Holy Spirit allow some of the capriciousness of the mythology the Bible draws from to stay in the text? Maybe this is cheeky for me to say but I really believe that the verses that make God look like an angsty immortal protecting his turf from the mortals in the Garden of Eden and Babel are in the Bible in order to prevent us from building a hegemonic Tower of Babel up to heaven out of Biblical inerrancy.