Friday, March 7, 2014

Getting Over the Hump of Biblical Inerrancy

     For the word of God  is alive  and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword,  it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
-Hebrews 4:12-13 (NIV)

Did you hear that camels are going to be the straw that breaks the back of the Bible?
     That’s what some researchers at Tel Aviv University are saying, at least. Using carbon dating, they’ve pinpointed the age of the oldest known camel bones in the Holy Land, and say that camels were introduced rather abruptly to the area sometime in the ninth century BC, possibly by Egyptian traders. The problem with that, at least from the standpoint of those who might tend to be skeptical anyway, is that the book of Genesis says that Abraham had camels - much earlier than the ninth century.
     Though, the first time the word “camels” is used in the Bible, it’s to say that Abraham acquired them from…wait for it…Egypt.
     So, maybe the researchers are right in their discovery that camels came in large quantities to the Holy Land in the ninth century. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that Abraham and his family used camels they brought from Egypt. Or that the nation of Israel brought some camels with them during their Exodus from Egypt. Or that invaders from other places came to fight in the Holy Land mounted on camels. That brings us, in the text of the Bible, up to the time of David - which is nearly in the time frame the researchers point to.
     Or maybe researchers will find older camels; it wouldn’t be the first time evidence against biblical data has needed to be re-evaluated: the existence of Bel-Shazzar, or the Hittites, or the Assyrian king Sargon come to mind.
     All of that aside, however: if the researchers are right, and it turns out to be conclusively established that Abraham couldn't possibly have owned camels - that changes nothing. It doesn't “disprove the Bible.” If history is conclusively shown to conflict with biblical events, it only reminds us of something we already know to be true.
     The Bible’s not that kind of book.
    The Bible tells stories about Abraham and his family so we’ll know about God’s grace and initiative and faithfulness - not to provide us with a reliable inventory of Abraham’s livestock. They could be buzzing around the desert in dune buggies and it wouldn’t substantially change the story. (Though how cool would Abraham in a dune buggy be?)  We know for sure that the stories about Abraham as we have them were written down much later than the actual events. Do we really expect them to have every historical T crossed, every camel dotted? Sure, the Holy Spirit could have given the authors of the Bible instant and perfect knowledge of historical events - but then the finished product would sort of lose its human element, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t any longer be human reflections on God’s work. It would be more like divine transcription. 
     We know Luke “carefully investigated” the sources behind his gospel - he apparently didn’t wait for the Holy Spirit to strike him with a bolt of inspiration. Is it so hard to imagine other biblical writers doing the same thing? If a writer got a name or two mixed up, or put in a camel where there should have been a donkey - well, so what?
     The Holy Spirit doesn’t need human inerrancy to do his work.
     Good thing, because if he works in and through human beings at all, it’s through human beings who make mistakes. And, believe me, mistakes much more serious than saying Abraham had camels. If human mistakes don’t invalidate his work in our lives, and in our time, why should we be worried that they might invalidate his work through other lives in other times?
     Really, there’s no need to be defensive about camels in the Bible. I say that because, I promise you, right now there’s some well-meaning believer somewhere trying to find - or even manufacture - evidence for camels in pre-Ninth Century Israel because he thinks the Bible needs that evidence. Otherwise, he thinks, the skeptics will have won.
     Well, we don’t need to beat the skeptics. Belief is grace, and it comes from God. Truthfully, anyone who thinks the Bible collapses like a game of Jenga because some researchers in Tel Aviv pull out the camel block either doesn’t know much about the Bible to begin with, or has already pre-selected skepticism as his default position. 
     I know why we worry about stories like this. I get it, I do. “If Abraham didn’t have camels, what else might turn out to be untrue?” Isn’t that what really bothers us? Not that we believe the other stuff isn’t true - few of us have faith so fragile. But we worry because ninth century camels at least admits the question. Those camels open the door for those who are skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection, for instance, or even for the existence of God. So does evolution, or questions about Joshua’s “lost day,” or whatever the evidence du jour of the Bible’s lack of historicity. And so we who believe feel a little anxious - not for our own belief, usually, but for the perception among those who don’t believe that the Bible can’t be trusted.
     But, I say again - the Bible isn’t that kind of book.
     We do it a disservice when we handle it that way, too. When we treat it like an inerrant version of history to be defended, we miss the point. We fail to communicate what the Bible is about, and who wrote it. 
     Hint: “God” is only the right answer to one of those questions. 
     What? I don’t believe God wrote the Bible? You don’t either, really. You don’t think he put pen to paper. And you don’t think he dictated it either, not really, not if you’ve read it. You know it’s a human creation. It came about because people had encounters with God, and found him to be awesome and holy and faithful and compassionate, and they, or others, wrote about those experiences - often decades or centuries after the fact. They wrote about those experiences so that those who came after could know about that God and would seek him and maybe have similar experiences with him. 
     And sometimes they got a camel out of place. But it doesn’t change the truth of those experiences.
     The Holy Spirit was square in the middle of that. He was involved in it. But he didn’t write it, and he didn’t dictate it. So it can be true, and still not always entirely accurate as history. 
     Because - say it with me - it’s not that kind of book.
     If some researcher some day indisputably proves that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead - then I’ll be worried. If some researcher some day shows that God couldn’t possibly exist - then I’ll be anxious. But camels? Please. If Abraham wouldn’t have known a camel from a dune buggy, it doesn’t change my belief in a loving God who made us and calls us to him, my faith in Jesus, who died for our sins and rose from the grave, or my experience of the Holy Spirit, who is making me every day more and more like him. The Bible doesn’t create my relationship with God. It helps me understand it, make sense of it, and organize my life by it. That’s the kind of book it is.

     A weaker view of inspiration? You tell me. But it’s a stronger view of the Bible, unmarked by camel hooves.  


  1. Thank you so much! You put it better than I could have--the Bible is written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. I love the Bible, and I'm still okay with the occasional less-than-savory, obviously incorrect errors. It doesn't devalue it to me. I think it's sad that people think they can 'disprove' the Bible, or a belief in a loving God. One of my mentors and good friends wrote this article that helped me realize that faith is a choice, that doing things and habits keep God in your life as much as 'evidence' does. I'm so grateful for the experiences I've had that convince me of holiness. Let me know what you think, and thanks again for this post!

  2. Thanks, Kendall. I think you're right about faith being a choice, that what we habitually do and say have much more influence on our faith than evidence. Makes sense, I suppose, since faith is fundamentally relational, focused on the One who is pleased by our belief in him and rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
    May God continue to bless you with growth and insight as you seek to know him better in Jesus.