2 Samuel 24:1
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.
Is God Satan? Is Satan God? These are two logical conclusions one could draw from reading these two passages in the Bible about the same event.
Scripture is filled with contradictory statements like this. For those who care about scripture, there seems to be two standard responses:
1. Those who think scripture has human origins that express the evolving thoughts of the authors over time look for historical reasons why the authors would express that. These people are not threatened by contradictions and typically have their faith and understanding strengthened as they learn the historical reasons for these contradictions.
2. Those who believe scripture has divine origins and assert there are no errors in the Bible look for ways to explain away or harmonize these apparent contradictions. These people see these apparent contradictions as threats to their perspective and aim to defend their viewpoint.
Accept or Defend – these seem to be the two basic options.
The Franciscan Friar William of Occam is known for his theory called “Occam’s Razor”, which says if there are several possible ways something might have happened, the way which uses the fewest guesses is probably the correct one (assuming the simple explanation and complex explanation work equally well).
Here’s an example of applying Occam’s Razor: Two trees have fallen down during a windy night. Think about these two possible explanations:
1. The wind has blown them down.
2. Two meteorites have each taken one tree down and, after striking the trees, hit each other removing any trace of themselves.
Even though both are possible, several other unlikely things would also need to happen for the meteorites to have knocked the trees down, for example: they would have to hit each other and not leave any marks. In addition, meteorites are fairly rare. Since this second explanation needs several assumptions to all be true, it is probably the wrong answer. Occam’s razor tells us the wind blew the trees down, because this is the simplest answer therefore probably the right one.
Accept or Defend
What if we apply Occam’s Razor to the above scripture contradiction? How would that look?
Option 1 – Accept
- Actual humans actually wrote scripture in their times and places.
- Realize the 2 Samuel passage was written 600 years prior at a time when the Israelites still saw their God as one of many (but the most powerful) and did not have the concept of Satan.
- Realize the 1 Chronicles passage was written 600 years later after the Jews had become more firmly monotheistic and borrowed the pagan foil of Satan as the excuse for people being tempted.
- Conclude that there is no contradiction, just two presentations of the story based on differing cultural norms across 600 years.
Option 2 – Defend
- Start with assuming scripture is of Divine origin based on… scripture (circular reasoning and a huge presupposition)
- Create a definition for “inspiration” that is unlike any other time “inspiration” is used elsewhere in history
- Create a series of ideas based on that definition of “inspiration” that implies God dictated (in some capacity) all of scriptue through humans.
- Assume that every time scripture mentions “the word of God” that it means all of scripture (even the scripture that hadn’t yet been written).
- Assert that scripture has no errors based on other Bible verses that mention “the word of God” as being “perfect” without regard to definitions of “word of God” and “perfect”.
- Force a scenario to explain away the contradiction based on the presupposition that there can be no contradictions since “the word of God” is “perfect”.
Are both of these “possible” explanations? Sure.
Do both of these explanations work equally well? Based on the numerous presuppositions, re-definitions, and vested interest of Option 2, I would say absolutely not. Option 2 has many more moving parts, defies history, defies linguistics, and includes logical fallacies in its approach.
People who support Option 2 often say that if Option 1 is correct (that scripture is of human origin), then it’s totally useless and not worth studying. And from their vested interest standpoint, it probably seems that way.
But for Option 1 people, scripture is more sensible, reasonable, and functions as ancient, diverse, and often ambiguous “wisdom literature” that requires our interaction, careful consideration, and the freedom to apply it as we see fit rather than having such applications determined and controlled by whatever “religious authorities” oversee their tradition.
A word from the Word
Jesus said “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” He’s not referring to the Bible, which only existed at that time as the 39 books of the Hebrew scriptures.
Jesus promised that when he was gone, the Holy Spirit (not the Bible) would guide his followers into all truth.
Jesus is referred to as The Word of God in scripture. He used that authority to reframe, restate, and at times subvert texts from the Hebrew scriptures to make his point. He misquoted passages of scripture (as did the apostle Paul) in his teachings.
Jesus said “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The example of his life clarifies what God is really like, regardless how God is described in the Hebrew scriptures.
When scripture is read with presuppositions overlaid like rose-colored glasses, of course everything will appear rosy. All the real colors will be thrown off and obscured. I used to see it that way. But now I prefer to approach the sacred writings without the presuppositions, appreciating it’s perfect imperfection.