Saturday, August 27, 2005

1 Samuel 17, the apologia

The previous post explained that it is impossible for David to have simultaneously slain Goliath as a boy and have been called to Saul's house many years later as a man, without Saul and his advisors having some recollection of the previous matter. Such things force genuine fundamentalists to abandon their commitment to truth because they are even more frightened by the tendency of some scriptural liberals to assert that the Bible says whatever they want it to say.

The Bible says what it says. It is not the Disney movie that some scriptural liberals want to turn it into. It is not inerrant truth.

And so most people are left in a quandary. "If it's not absolute truth," the fundamentalists say, "why should we believe anything it says?" "If God is as described as in parts of the Bible, then I can't believe in God," certain scriptural liberals say. All this gives much amusement to atheists, who-- making the same error in reverse as fundamentalists-- treat any error in the Bible or any mention of God's harshness as proof of God's non-existence.

They're all wrong. It is possible for the Bible to contain errors or even falsehoods and yet also to describe reasonably accurately God and His relationship with humankind. It is possible to read the Bible literally and yet not believe it is inerrant. These propositions are obvious to anyone who loves literature, but also to scientists and engineers. What engineer has picked up a computer manual believing that it is absolutely, literally true? What scientist thinks that since quantum mechanics proved that classical mechanics is "wrong" tries to apply quantum mechanics to playing horseshoes? What lover of literature reads Melville looking for factual errors-- or finishes Moby Dick without seeing larger truths in a book that is purely fiction? People who think they possess the truth are often the farthest from it. It is those who love truth and pursue it wholeheartedly who are permitted glimpses.

So, here is how to read 1 Samuel 17: Temporarily forget about the rest of the Bible. Let this chapter be absolutely, literally true while you are reading it. If you can't accept parts of it later, that's fine. One of the few things we really know about God is that he loves truth, making it rise again and again when human beings try to suppress. deny, or destroy it. He would never ask us to suppress our beliefs for the sake of scriptural literalism. But while you are reading a piece of scripture, fulfill your side of the deal by listening with your whole heart and mind and soul.

In fact, I see scriptural inconsistencies as a pop quiz whose main object is to ask the reader: "Do you love the truth, or do you love a book?"

I strongly suspect the Bible's editors saw them that way. The first books of both the Old and New Testament begin with the best examples of internal contradictions in scripture, far better than the minor inconsistencies of 1 Samuel. The editors could have wiped away the inconsistencies. Modern fundamentalists probably would, reasoning that they are just helping God make a better case for Himself. But thought of as a pop quiz to divide the Truth-loving sheep from the Book-loving goats, it makes an awful lot of sense.

Fundamentalists remind me of students who try to pin a professor down to exactly what is going to be on the test. If the test involves a topic that the professor talked about at length but was not in the book, they moan that this is unfair. Scriptural liberals remind me of kids who take a class on physics but expect the test to be about their pet topic, say, why concealed carry ought to be legal everywhere. And genuine atheists (as opposed to people who love truth, mercy, and justice, but can't say the J-words) are the kids who cut class and wonder why they aren't learning anything.

The real mystery is why or Divine Professor has so much patience. As St. Paul says, we have no excuse. God is manifest everywhere. Just open your eyes and your heart.

And so to proceed to the actual study.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

1 Sam. 17, the editorial

Chapter 17 is perhaps one of the most widely known books of the Bible. In it, a very young David slays the nine foot tall giant Goliath-- so strong that the giant's armor alone weighs 125 pounds-- by knocking him out with a stone cast from a sling. Then, while Goliath is stunned, David takes the giant's sword and decapitates him. The Philistines flee in terror from Ephes Dammim back to Gath. By his heroic act, David qualifies himself for great wealth, exemption from taxation, and marriage to the king's daughter.

As explained below, this chapter plainly contradicts the preceding and the following chapter, as well as other Biblical text. On the lectio divinae website, I describe the Bible as a kaleidoscope, a holy toy by which we see truth. Therefore, there is no defect with passages that are plainly not true. These serve to distinguish those who love the truth and are willing to humble themselves to see it from those who blindly give their allegiance to a book.

I have discovered that many Christians who call themselves "fundamentalists" actually do not hold scripture to the standard of 100% literal accuracy and are therefore not really fundamentalists. They are, instead, people who revere scripture and listen to it attentively, as do I. They call themselves "fundamentalists" because that comes closest to describing their feelings, but if confronted with scriptural inconsistencies, they love the truth more than they do the idea of book containing nothing but truth. I don't call myself a fundamentalist, because fundamentalism-- Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and others-- is a political movement, a heresy that has nothing to do with God.

But it's important to read and understand the arguments of the fundamentalists. These are ably presented by Eric Lyons of Apologetics Press. Half of the piece is devoted to claiming that those who say this chapter is inconsistent assert that biblical text occur in strict chronological order. This is a strawman argument. No serious scriptural commentator would make such an assertion. What Lyons is not crediting is the point that no chronological sequence makes sense.

Next are Lyons's proposals that "enough time could have lapsed so that David’s appearance changed significantly since the last time he appeared before king Saul." , that "Saul ... may have lapsed into another unreliable mental state", "because of jealousy ...Saul simply wanted to act like he did not know David" or that " Saul .. simply could have been inquiring about David’s family."

Or maybe there was an eclipse and Saul couldn't see, or maybe a wizard had temporarily turned David into a giant lizard or....

Ya know?

The only perfection here is in Lyons's perfect shamelessness in saying "Until skeptics logically negate the above possible solutions to the questions surrounding 1 Samuel 16-17, and are able to prove beyond doubt that the Bible writer made a genuine mistake, one does not have to doubt the integrity of the biblical text."

Sorry, pal. People who love the truth show it through a little thing called humility. They don't rhetorically stick their fingers in their ears.

Indeed, Lyons has the effrontery to use a quote from a legal book on municipal law giving deference to ancient texts. Well, of course established texts receive deference over newer ones: that's one reason that it took so long for Galileo to get it through the Vatican's thick skull that Aristotelian astronomy was wrong. But I suggest Lyons try as an object lesson showing up with a deed saying he owns lot 11 in Kokomo to take title to lot 11 in Cedar Falls, which is analogous to what he is doing with 1 Samuel. If there are obvious contradictions in any document, any person who cares about the truth will acknowledge them and-- like Solomon with the two women claiming as their own a child (1 Kgs. 3)-- work toward a just resolution.

There's enormous hypocrisy in this claim that the age of texts should overrule the human mind and conscience. By the criterion of revering ancient texts, Christians should unquestioningly accept just about any elderly book, even the Bhagavad Gita or Zoroastrianism.

But of course, that's the problem with fundamentalism. They all demand that you swear allegiance to their book, whether it's the Torah or the New Testament or the Koran. In so doing, they turn the Bible or the Koran into an idol.

Here's the problem a genuine scholar faces. David is by Saul's own word a boy or, if one wishes to ignore all other translators, as a servant (Hebrew na'ar) when he kills Goliath. He was presumably a big boy, since it wasn't entirely ridiculous for Saul to dress him in armor, a helmet, and Saul's own tunic. But David was a boy, who boasted about fighting with bears and lions, never mentioning military service.

When Saul hired David the harpist in the preceding chapter, he is described in the words of the KJV as "a mighty valiant man, and a man of war" (Hebrew gabowr chayil 'iysh milchamah). The combination of these words makes it no doubt that David is a man when Saul hires him as a harpist. Definitely not a boy or even a servant.

So, the text of chapters 16 and 17 is in reverse chronological order, which is fine. That happens routinely through the Bible.

Unless men turn into boys, the hiring of David as a harpist occurred after the encounter with Goliath. David would have been the king's son-in-law to be, exempted from taxes, and made wealthy, according to the king's promise. Surely Saul would have known something about David when he hired him as a harpist! Surely he would not have had to ask Jesse's permission to keep the man his daughter was to marry at the royal household.

Fatally for the fundamentalist cause, we are told in chapter 18 that Saul never let the boy David return to Jesse after the battle with Goliath (the word has overtones of a "ban" or a "repentance"); in chapter 16, the mighty man David is summoned from Jesse's house. Given the strength of the word that ends up translated as "never," it is not reasonable to propose that David commuted between Saul and his sheep nor is there any episode which can be cited to support the notion that David ever returned to his father's house.

Another problem with the Goliath story is that it is repeated in suspiciously similar circumstances in 2 Sam. 21. 2 Sam. 21: 19 has Elhanan, like David also from Bethlehem, killing "Goliath the Gittite" who also has a "spear with a shaft like a weaver's rod." But 1 Chron. 20:5 says this is Goliath's brother, not Goliath. That would introduce another problem. If David has gone from being a boy to middle aged in 2 Sam. 21, surely Goliath's brother would be no spring chicken. So, perhaps 2 Sam. 21 represents a double scribal error

I'd vote for wizards and giant lizards ahead of accepting this particular text as infallibly correct.

Even more likely than lizards and wizards is that war stories grow in the telling. After all, even if we accept that the Bible is 100% truthful, it is not God quoted as saying that Saul had promised as a reward for slaying Goliath his daughter's hand in marriage plus a bushel of cash. It was guys in the barracks, so to speak. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe they lied, just to rile the kid. We don't know.

But this is dangerous territory for fundamentalists. Once one concedes that what some soldiers said may not be reliable, what about Moses? What about the Apostle Paul? If one relies for authority purely on what Jehovah and Jesus say, lots of politically important passages are downgraded, leaving lots of politically embarrassing passages, like the imperative to feed the poor, purge one's heart of anger and violence, and so many other things that undercut the political message of fundamentalism. Indeed, people might even start reading the Epistles and discovering that Paul said a little bit more than the Chick Comics version of the Bible would have it.

For me, of course, the literal truth of text is not important. Like the Apostle Paul, I see God manifest in this world, His perfection highlighted by the deficits of us human beings, His Son flowing through every act of genuine love, no matter how small and done by no matter whom. We have no excuse not to see God. The book, like the Law is good, but we do not absolutely need it to know God. Indeed, those who love the book the most seem to love God and the truth the least.

With that, let's leave the editorializing and proceed to addressing the text as it deserves: with reverence, but with even greater reverence for the truth. For the moment, let's make 1 Sam. 17 our little world, ignoring all the larger textual problems and, like little children, let this bit of scripture be perfectly true just for the brief moment of our study.