God Squad: Not every Bible passage is true
Q: How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God? — From J, a devoted reader in Wilmington, North Carolina
Your question, dear J, is at the root of every religion on Earth. The path of every religion goes first through the experience of revelation of the founder (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, etc.). They tell of their revelation and followers write down what they heard. The written account of the revelation becomes sacred scripture (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Quran, etc.).
The theological questions raised by the accounts included in the sacred scriptures raise many questions, including your question, dear J. How can we know in this chain of experience and telling and writing that we end up actually reading the Word of God?
This question breaks down into other questions. Did God really communicate with the founder? Did the founder hear God accurately? Did the early disciples of the founder accurately hear the teachings of the founder, and did they accurately record the words of the founder without changing them? Let's wrestle with these questions a bit.
Let me briefly tell you why I believe that the Bible is the Word of God — which means I believe that God did reveal many things to many humans — and why the sacred scriptures of many faiths accurately record elements of that divine revelation.
The reason for my belief comes down to three words: truth over time. If something is true over thousands of years, it is true for me, and the moral code set down in the Bible is true over time. Do not murder or steal or commit adultery and honor your parents and do not covet (Exodus 20) . Love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43, 19:19 ). Be a harbor in the storm of life to those who are in need (Isaiah 4:6). Have hope in the face of death (Psalm 23). Forgive others (Numbers 14:19; Matthew 6:14, 18:21). Pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20). All these revelations from our sacred scriptures and so many more are true. Philosophically, this means that they are universally true even if God did not reveal them. Historically, this means that civilizations that follow these moral laws thrive and those that violate them collapse. I am always fascinated by those who deny God and revelation but who then develop their own moral laws that are an exact copy of biblical morality. If something is enduringly true we discovered it through reason or revelation. You can get to it without God or with God, but the truth is the truth and ultimately God is truth.
Now the bump in the road.
What about the parts of sacred scripture that do not seem true or the parts of scripture that are definitely not true? How could a true, just and perfect God reveal a commandment that part of the curse of Eve and all women after her is that their husbands "should rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). What about the laws making homosexuality a capital offense (Leviticus 18:22). What about the laws concerning taking a woman in wartime as a spoil of war (Deuteronomy 21:11), or the laws commanding King Saul to execute all the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-35), the refusal of which caused King Saul to lose his kingship.
All these laws and stories are in sacred scripture and they are not only false. They are, in truth, abominable. My approach to this, first of all, is to admit that these are problematic verses. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said of the command to kill all the Amalekite children and women and flocks, "I cannot hear the Word of God in these verses." I agree with Buber. I cannot worship a God who commands genocide. So what do we do, dear J, about the bad parts of the Bible?
My solution is to simply tell the truth as we see it. God has revealed the Bible, but not every biblical verse reveals God. Not every word in every text in every book is from God. Some of the words are from ignorant and prejudiced people who lived long ago with the prejudices of their times obscuring their view of the truth. This is the point at which secular philosophy and theology touch. God lays out the basic moral code, and we use secular ethics to comb through the other texts to test their ethical merit. If they fall short, they were never from God. If they are true, they were intended by God to purify us, lead us and inform us that we can indeed act with love and compassion and justice and hope in a broken world.
That is all I know, and it may not even be true, but it is enough for me to live in fidelity to the God of truth.