My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37

Usually, people who claim that they read the Bible literally also claim that the Bible contains no errors. Yet one of the reasons I so admire the Bible and consider it authoritative is that it dutifully records its own errors.

One of my favorites is the prophecy of Ezekiel against Tyre in chapters 26 through 29. For three whole chapters, Ezekiel rails against the city of Tyre. Since he believes that the army of Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of wrath against Jerusalem, he is excited to see it lay siege to Tyre.

(When you read this, you have to imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.)

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down its towers. I will scrape its soil from it and make it a bare rock.  It shall become, in the midst of the sea, a place for spreading nets. I have spoken, says the Lord God. It shall become plunder for the nations, and its daughter-towns in the country shall be killed by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 26:4-6)

As I said, for three whole chapters this goes on, with Ezekiel relishing his poetic destruction of the city.

Only one problem: It didn’t happen. Babylon laid siege to the city for three years, but you can’t successfully lay siege to a seaport. I imagine the guards on the walls of Tyre yelling down to the Babylonian tents, “Hey, guys! We’re having a fish fry today! Can you smell it? Oh, hey, what are you having for dinner? Aww, thin gruel again? So sad!”

At the end of three years, the army gave up. So, naturally, Ezekiel went back and tore up his manuscript, right? Or maybe he wrote, “Oops, my bad.”

Nope. He just turned his attention to Egypt!

Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labour that he had expended against it. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)

Nice save, Ezekiel! So, naturally, Babylon conquered Egypt, right?

Nope again.

My favorite theory is that Ezekiel became the model for the story of Jonah, which was written to be read not literally, but as a satire of the hellfire and brimstone prophets. Jonah is a frustrated prophet who fumes when God fails to destroy Israel’s enemies. In contrast to Ezekiel’s logorrhea, Jonah just stomps part way into the city, utters one line, turns around and stomps out. He wants so much to see the bad guys punished that he wraps himself in his own private hell of resentment and bitterness. God, in contrast, can’t bear the thought of hurting the children or even the cattle (Jonah 4).

There is a dialogue going on in the pages of the Bible, where competing theologies are trying to describe God’s history with God’s people. I don’t deny that there are authors who believed that God would punish cities by starving their populace, so that families would be torn apart, people raped and sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 28:30-34), and parents would be forced to cannibalize their own children (verses 54-57). Job, Jonah, and Ruth (among others) critique that theological view. And for Christians, Jesus is the final repudiation of that theology (Matthew 5:43, John 9:3, Luke 13:4, Mark 15:34). Good and bad things happen to people not as God’s rewards or punishments, but because stuff happens. What God makes out of it, and us, is where grace happens.

Anti-religious detractors like to point out these errors and blood and guts passages in order to portray believers as foolish or barbaric, but for me, these errors are awesome. The editors and compilers could have edited out Ezekiel’s mistakes, but they didn’t. They could have harmonized the gospels, the creation stories, and the histories of the monarchy, but they didn’t. The Bible is not a monologue—it is a dialogue. To me, that’s what makes it believable. What’s even more cool is that we are invited to participate in the dialogue, which doesn’t end even when you close the book and the people say Amen.

This Sunday, the sermon topic at Saint Junia’s preview service will be on the Two Creation Stories (Genesis 1-3). I’ll be sharing why it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to believe in evolution, considering that we already have more than one creation story in the Bible. Come join the dialogue!

Lies My Preacher Told Me: Three Ways We Censor the Bible

In my last post, I talked about the “secret” history of Red Alabama, and how that history gets sanitized. How we sanitize history is the subject of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that how we teach history affects our thinking and our politics. There is a similar “secret” history of biblical interpretation, which also affects both our thinking and our politics.

I’m doing a Bible study called “Your Vulgar Bible” on Monday nights in a local pub. I’m sharing the stories and passages that don’t get preached. These are stories that do not get shared, either from the pulpit or in Sunday schools, and so people get a skewed vision of the Bible.

I argue that there are three ways the Bible gets censored:

  1. In translation. Translators often make ambiguous passages more explicit, and explicit passages more ambiguous. When Saul calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” who is a “shame to [his] mother’s nakedness,” he is not making a claim about Jonathan’s parentage. He’s insulting him, calling him a son of a bitch. While “bitch” might not be a literal translation, “perverse and rebellious woman” conveniently hides the gist in such a way that it will not shock the people in the pews. Likewise, when Rehoboam’s friends make derogatory statements about the size of Solomon’s genitals (and thus his manliness), we can translate the phrase in such a way that makes readers think we’re talking about his waist circumference. In both cases, we’ve gone very literal in order to hide the meaning. It’s possible to censor the latter passage by going very vague. Either way, you hide the scandal of the language used. That’s censorship.
  2. In selection. Some passages simply never appear in the lectionary or sermon series, nobody talks about them in Sunday school lessons or devotionals, and they just don’t come up. This is like the history of Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, or the fact that Birmingham was once a hotbed of communist agitation. There are people who know these facts exist, and choose to avoid the topics when they teach them. If we talk about the fact that there is cussin’ in the Bible, or allusions to sex outside of marriage, then the very categories we use to think about the world get called into question. It’s easier to never talk about it than to let it challenge us. We tell only part of the story, or don’t tell the story at all.
  3. In interpretation. We can read some passages a thousand times and never pay attention to what is being said, because we skew the interpretation to be about something more palatable. When Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ, he is likely not the first to do so. What he does with the metaphor, though, is to twist it in such a way as to make a point: “The church members you dislike,” argues Paul, “may be assholes, but would you want to live without yours?” Paul refers to “body parts with less honor” that we “cover up,” When these less honorable body parts rejoice, all the body rejoices, he says. His hearers would have known he was talking about sex.

Most contemporary church people never hear the subtext of Paul’s passage, though. Paul figured his listeners 2000 years ago were smart enough to figure it out. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, a lot of preaching makes us dumber! When we never hear alternative interpretations, we are less likely to hear delightful subtext, allusion, double entendre, humor… in short, everything that makes reading fun. This is why so many nonreligious people think the Bible is full of dry-as-dust moralistic writing.

Like the story about Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, these aspects of the Bible are lies by omission. We are sold a vision of history—and the Bible—that is shaped by an ideology, a narrative that censors every voice that might contradict it. When we buy into that narrative without question, we rob the Bible of its ability to shock and challenge us. We silence the voices of its authors by setting the Bible up on a pedestal. Rather than let them speak, we talk over them, drowning out their own words with ours.

I would also argue that we silence God. It is hard for me to comprehend how white Christians in slave states in the South could have read the book of Exodus without casting themselves in the role of the Egyptians, or how child-labor supporters and anti-suffragists and Jim Crow supporters could ever read the Bible and simply not hear prophetic calls for justice for orphans, widows, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet they did.

And they do. Because of biblical censorship, people will continue to “look without seeing” and “hear without understanding.” These are the folks who claim to read the Bible literally and believe every word. Yet the Bible they believe in is missing most of its pages.

Letting God speak through the authors takes a willingness to expose ourselves to other interpretations. We have to be willing to make a claim, test a hypothesis, and admit that we are wrong. All of this happens in the context of conversation! Jewish sages have been doing this for centuries, like Hillel and Shimmei, wrangling over what it means to “honor the Sabbath.” Our faith encounter with the Bible has always been dialogical, and part of my mission is to resist attempts to turn it into a monologue.

Jesus vs. the Drama Queens

We usually use the word “hypocrite” to mean someone who doesn’t practice what they preach, or someone who notices other people’s sins but do not notice their own. But after hearing yesterday’s lesson on Mark 7, I began to hear something different about the way Jesus uses the word “hypocrite.”

I wrote about this passage in my book God Shows No Partiality: “hypocrite” is a Greek word that meant stage-actor, and for the first Gospel writers it would have carried several negative connotations that they associated with Greek theater. Because both Christians and non-Christians use the word so much, it has lost it’s ability to connote these other meanings.

So I started thinking, what if we translated “hypocrite” as “drama queen?” Imagine Jesus saying to today’s Christians, “Woe to you fundamentalists, you drama queens!” The phrase “drama queen” connotes both acting and overacting. It can include manufactured outrage, religious posturing, or disapproval at people who break religious regulations. It connotes the shocking gender and sexual ambiguity that was present in first century theater (where men played women’s roles, and theater people were associated with lax morality) as well as the modern implication of some kind of personality disorder. Religious drama queens have a deep personal need for attention and approval, either from God or from their social group. They love stories in which they are an oppressed minority. For them, the world is always about to end. The president or the pope or Lady Gaga are the anti-Christ. For preachers who rail against homosexuality, the phrase “drama queen” points out that they may have their own gender and sexuality issues.

It’s too easy for Christian holy-rollers to shrug off being called hypocrites, and it’s too easy for non-Christians to slap the hypocrite label on religious people without thinking of how it applies to themselves. One common sermon illustration is the person who says they don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites. The pastor replies: “We’ve always got room for one more.” Both religious and non-religious people can be drama queens.

You can be a religious or a non-religious drama queen any time you build yourself up by showing others what a lifestyle diva you are: praying in the marketplace, as Jesus said, or publicly lamenting whatever it is trendy to lament, or manufacturing outrage over someone else’s misstep. Their are eco-drama queens, and second amendment drama queens, and vegetarian drama queens, and libertarian drama queens. In this way, hypocrisy is not only about saying one thing and doing another. It’s the whole practice of blowing tiny things, even irrelevant things, out of proportion.

The story from Mark goes like this: The disciples sit down to eat one day without washing their hands. (For contemporary Christians, this might be like sitting down to a meal without saying a blessing first). Some of the Pharisees notice, and they say to Jesus, “Don’t your students care about honoring God before they eat?” Jesus answers, “The Bible warns about you religious drama queens: ‘These people talk incessantly about me, but their hearts belong elsewhere. Their worship is meaningless, and they teach their own rules instead of mine.’ ”

The Pharisees were taking a few verses from the Bible about religious purity for priests (who were supposed to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Temple) and applying it to all people in all situations. Today, religious drama queens take all kinds of scriptures out of context, or make up new restrictions that they say follow logically from other scriptures, and teach them as God’s Will for All Humankind. Jesus says that such people are not really following God. They are drama queens.

As we begin forming Saint Junia, our new United Methodist Church in Birmingham, I think we need to establish early on a “no drama” rule. Not the theater arts, obviously, which are hugely important, but the bad drama of moralistic posturing and religious politics. The idea is to walk with God humbly, recognizing that it’s very easy for us to cross the line from authenticity to overacting without ever realizing it.