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In the Beginning(s): Appreciating the Complexity of the Bible

The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument.
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People love to argue about the Bible. Whether very many of them are actually reading it is less clear. Take the creationism-versus-evolution debates, which have become a central battleground in the larger atheist-versus-believers debates. Despite more than a century of conflict, few in these debates seem aware that there are actually several different accounts of creation scattered throughout the Bible, and they don't all agree. The opening chapters of Genesis give us two. In the first, God begins on the macrocosmic level, calling forth light from dark, waters from waters, and land from sea. Then comes vegetation, then the sun, moon and stars, and then animal life. Finally, as the piece de resistance of creation, God makes humankind, in the plural, male and female, in God's image.

In the second story, which immediately follows this one, the order of creation is entirely different. Here God's first act of creation, before there are any plants or animals, is to form a single human, not yet male or female, by shaping it from the dust of the earth and then bringing it to life by breathing into its nostrils. Thus ha'adam, Hebrew for "the human," is formed from ha'adamah, "the earth," and becomes a living soul by divine breath. A beautiful image of the ecological spirituality of humanity: a God-breathed and breathing lump of clay, human from humus, an incarnation of divine transcendence and earthy immanence, as intimate with the ground as with God. Then come plants and animals. Then, when no animal fits the bill as lifelong companion (sorry, Fido), God essentially divides the human into two, male and female. So, in the first story, humans in the plural, male and female, are created last; and in the second, a single human is created first. These two versions of creation simply do not sync.

That's just the first few pages of Genesis. There are several other creation stories in the Bible, and they don't add up to anything like a coherent biblical account of cosmic or human origins. In Job 38, for example, the first act of creation involves a conflict between God and the sea, that is, the formless, watery deep that was there before the world began. God sinks foundations into it for the earth to rest like some huge primeval offshore drilling station. God then sets boundaries for the waters so that they don't overwhelm it.

In the brief account of creation in Psalm 74, on the other hand, there are monsters, and the struggle to establish order is much more intense. God must first slay Leviathan and the sea dragons, monstrous forces of primordial chaos, in order to create the cosmos as a safe, orderly place. Then again, in Psalm 104, Leviathan is not as a monstrous opponent of creation but a sea creature with whom God plays.

And then there's the account of creation in Proverbs 8, in which God has a divine cohort, Wisdom (in Hebrew, Hokhmah), who declares that she was with God "from the beginning, from the origin of the earth ... there was still no deep when I was brought forth, no springs rich with water, before the mountains were sunk." When God "assigned the sea its limits" and "fixed the foundations of the earth," she says, "I was at his side as confidant. I was a source of delight every day, playing before him all the time" (my translation). This may remind us of the account of beginnings in the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the logos," usually translated as "Word" but also carrying the meaning of "Wisdom," now incarnate in Christ.

You get the idea. These and other biblical visions of beginnings don't add up to a consistent biblical account of creation. Unlike the creationism in circulation today, the Bible's own creationism is rich in different, mutually incompatible ways of imagining cosmic and human beginnings. There is no single biblical account of creation. The Bible doesn't seem to have a problem with that. Why should we?

Whether or not we should have a problem with this biblical polyvocality, I've learned the hard way that many indeed do. I recently wrote a short piece for on "Five Things You Didn't Know" about the Bible. The first of those five things was that there are multiple accounts of creation in the Bible. I expected some people to disagree, and I looked forward to a serious back-and-forth about the texts I had pointed out. That's not what happened. Instead, I was overwhelmed with a flood of angry responses, most of which were as impious, rude and downright unchristian in tone as they were reactionary and unthinking in their "defense" of the Bible.

Once I got over being called a "gay moron" and "fatass nerd editor sitting in his basement," I could see that what I'd gotten myself into was an amplified version of the debates that go on every day between "Bible-believers" and atheists, who looked to me very much like two sides of the same coin.

Both sides agreed that my goal was to "discredit" the Bible, to "make the Bible look stupid, irrelevant, and full of holes" and "a load of bullshit." The only difference between them was whether they supported or condemned me for doing so. Neither side was remotely interested in engaging with the logic of my argument, let alone the biblical texts I used to support it. As one exclaimed, "the OP ["original poster," me] needs to actually check his facts. You would think one might actually read the books objectively before commenting on them. Seriously??? Differences in Gen 1&2??? Are you nuts!!!" Another wrote, "There is only one creation account found in the bible, which anybody with any intellectual honesty can see. There are no contradictions; You're just not reading it carefully. Probably on purpose. All I'm seeing is cheap shots being taken at the bible, all of which are based on opinion and not fact." Several made clear, moreover, that my "attack" on the Bible was also an attack on its presumed author, God, and therefore on faith in general. As one commenter put it, "i don't buy any of this futile facts ... i stand by one fact, the Bible is a true and unchanging word of God, we shouldn't take God to court."

Never mind that I'm a Christian, that I regularly teach about the Bible in confirmation classes and in Sunday school, and that I've dedicated more than two decades to studying and teaching biblical literature as a college professor. I think I have my facts right, and the biblical references were right there. It would've been easy to go and read them before responding. But no one on either side of the argument did.

It seems to me that those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are not very different from the irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible incorporates inconsistencies and contradictions, as I have done, is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture. Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what's at stake, namely its credibility. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

But you can't fail at something you're not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That's a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. Biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere.

Nor can we presume that such contradictions are stupid mistakes, editorial oversights or divine typos. We'll never know all the details about the history of the development of the literature now in our Bibles. What we do know is that it was thousands of years in the making and involved countless people writing, editing, copying, canonizing, publishing and so on. Can we honestly believe that, if agreement and consistency were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It's modern arrogance to imagine so.

The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument -- even and especially when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers.

The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. As such it opens up space for us to explore different voices and perspectives, to discuss, to disagree and, above all, to think. Too often, however, that's not what happens.

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