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I have a struggle, one that I have had for a while now. It isn’t an easy one to talk about, mainly because there are a great many who simply do not have this struggle and truly do not understand why a person such as myself would!

My struggle has to do with the nature of Scripture. What is it? What ISN’T it? And what are we supposed to do with it?

Before I get into the particulars, I feel the need to give a little background. I grew up with the idea that Scripture contains the very words, actions, and commands of God. It was like a PDF download from heaven (not that this type of thing even existed when I was young…but I digress). If the Bible says that God said, did, or allowed something to happen, then that is what happened. Plain. Simple. Easy.

But the more I study the Bible, the more I see difficulties with understanding Scripture in this way. And, yes, I know what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says about all Scripture being God-breathed, but I wonder if we have truly understood what the nature of inspiration is, and therefore what the nature of Scripture is.

I see discrepancies that line the pages of our sacred text: slave laws in different parts of the Bible that do not agree on who can be a slave, who can be set free, and how long before the slavery can end. I read stories of prophets who prophecy incorrectly, disagreements on who killed Goliath, how many animals Noah brought on the ark, etc. In other words, I see lots of things that I should not have seen had Scripture been a divine PDF download.

As I told one class I was teaching, if God wrote the Bible, then He seems to struggle with names, places, events, and chronologies.

Did God Say It?

Beyond the occasional discrepancy are the problematic stories regarding the violence of God. The stories where God orders the killing of entire groups of people, or even sometimes demands that the virgin women of the enemy be kept for the men of the tribes of Israel after a military victory. When thinking about Jesus, the very representation of God to men, it is hard to reconcile his teachings and actions with those found in the stories I just alluded to. And though there are many we could reference at this point, I want to focus in on just one story: that of Numbers 31.

The Bible Says It, But Did God Say It?

In this whopper of a biblical story, God tells Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites because of what they did to the Israelites. First of all, this call to kill the Midianites is a confusing one, mainly because (as far as we can tell) the Midianites hadn’t really done anything to the Israelites, nothing that deserves this type of action. And just what had they been accused of doing that was so heinous? It seems that the women of Midian had seduced the Israelite men, causing them to sin with them and worship their gods. The problem is that, according to the account given in Numbers 25, it was the Moabites that did this, not the Midianites!!! (if God is writing this down, why is this detail wrong, or why is it incorrect in chapter 25?)

I wish this was the worst part of the story, but it isn’t.

At God’s command, Scripture tells us that the Israelites killed every Midian soldier in battle. In fact, the victory was incredibly flawless. Verse 49 tell us that not a single Israelite soldier died…all had been accounted for in the census that Moses commanded.

And the plunder they took was massive! Lots of animals and land had been gained. Oddly and troublesomely, the plunder also included people. Moses also thought it was odd that the plunder included humans.

Well, sort of.

He actually got upset because, by his estimation, the soldiers had brought before him too many people as plunder. Too many because it was the wrong kind of people. Yes, they had killed off the leaders and all the enemy fighting men. Can’t have them around causing trouble. And having decisively won the military battle, they brought back the remaining inhabitants: the women and children. But like I said, Moses still had a problem with the “kind of people” they brought back.

In fact, he asks them in verse 15, “Have you allowed all the women to live?” He later tells them to kill all the women who have had sex with a man (how they would know this?). The virgins would be plunder. Apparently virgin women are the right kind of plunder to keep…?

He also states in verse 17 that they are to kill all the boys/males. This term includes babies, toddlers and males of all ages. Given the command of Pharaoh to do the same to the Israelites, I find this command to be unbelievably strange.

Well, actually the whole story is a bit weird.

But this blog post isn’t about how strange or harsh this story is. It is related to, but not directly about this.

This post is about how we, as Christians, wrestle and make sense of such a difficult text. For most of us, we at least cringe when we read a story like this one. And rightfully so. The idea of God commanding all sexually active women and all males regardless of age be killed is so little like Jesus that our skin crawls.

At least for a moment it crawls. Then the apologetics begin.

It Is In Scripture, Which Means God Said It, And That Settles It

For many, the very fact that a story like this is in our Bibles is enough to make them simply shrug their shoulders and carry on. They think, “I don’t know why God would say this, but He is wiser than I am, His knowledge of the future far surpasses mine, so I am sure that, whatever the reason, it is a moral and right command.”

And while it is true that God is all of these things and more, I find this logic unsatisfactory.

Here is another reason that I believe simply falls short:
“The promiscuous women had to be killed. They would be constant source of temptation to lure the people away from the one, true God. They would cause the Israelites to do all sorts of abominable acts, perhaps even child sacrifice to false gods! And the boys, well they would have grown to fighting age and turned on Israel. They needed to be removed as well.”

Can you imagine Jesus telling us to kill anyone who might cause us to sin? Jesus says we are responsible for our own actions! If something we see causes us to sin, we are to pluck out our eye! We are not told to snuff out what we see.

In harmony with the above is the logic that these Midianite (or Moabite…whatever) people were so immoral and corrupt that they had to be killed as an act of justice from God! Well, except the virgin women (obviously).

Whatever reason we land on, we feel that the one we MUST land on is that God actually said it. Because it is in the Bible. And since it is in the Bible, we must accept it. It is settled.

Which takes me back to my original struggle.

What is the Bible? What is Scripture? And what are we supposed to do with it?

I mean, can the Bible say anything and we’d be okay with it? Is there anything God could command that we would look at and say, “Okay. Now He’s gone too far?” Or, better still, “Okay. This is starting to sound more like a human and less like God.”

On my next blog, we will look at some alternate endings to Numbers 31, just to drive the point home even further. Until next time.