Sic et Non

By Dr. George Ball

Dr. George Ball
Dr. George Ball

There are two completely different ways to approach the Bible, for it is a vast compendium of ideas said to have come directly from God over a period of nearly 1,000 years. It is so wide in scope that it is possible to make a variety of responses. One of these is a negative one, the claim that it cannot be the Word of God, for it contains too much that an intelligent and moral person could not possibly affirm. Let us look first at the case made for this viewpoint.

Just after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and eaten of the forbidden fruit, they ran and hid in the bushes. The Bible then says, "...they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day." (Gen. 3) Notice the assumption that God has weight and thus crackles the bushes. Notice, too, that God comes to the garden in the cool of the day, indicating that God minds the heat just as humans do.

Then God calls out, "Where are you?" Apparently God cannot see through the bushes any more than we can. We have here three instances of anthropomorphism; that is, seeing God as essentially having human characteristics and limitations. Actually these are quite lovely, charming ideas, though primitive.

In Deuteronomy 21, we are told what to do if we have a stubborn and rebellious son. We are to take him to the city gate and "Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones." Maybe there are times when we have felt like that, but I doubt we would think that God prescribes this.

In Deuteronomy 13 is this instruction: "If a prophet arises among you...and if he says 'Let us go after other gods and serve them,' you shall not listen. But that prophet shall be put to death." I remember my professor at Yale Divinity School saying that this passage was one of the early instances of religious persecution, which for nearly all subsequent centuries has been an unending curse of religion. That Divinity School teacher happened to be a Whitman College graduate, who was one of the most successful authors on religious history in this country in his day. Some of you would recall his name: Roland Bainton. He graduated from Whitman in 1915.

In I Samuel 15, the Lord orders Samuel to instruct Saul, the king, to smite the Amalekites "and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling." We now have a name for this-genocide-which is probably the worst of all crimes the human race can commit. Add to this that God tells Saul why the Amalekites were to be killed: they were one of the first tribes to attack the Israelites after the Israelites had safely come through the parted waters of the Red Sea. However, according to the time table in the King James Version of the Bible, which my mother gave me when I was a little boy, that attack by the Amalekites, for which they were to be punished, happened 412 years earlier than when God ordered their extinction. As some wit said, "It takes a god to be angry that long."

Looking at the Bible from a different standpoint, however, it is clear that it contains two of the grandest insights and visions that have ever been offered to the human race. The first is theological, an appreciation of the magnitude and unity and majesty of the universe of which we are all an integral part. When the Bible wants you to think of this, it often mentions the stars. Psalm 8 says, "When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has established, what is man that thou are mindful of him?" Or in Isaiah 40: "Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these stars; He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might...not one is missing." Finally, in the 38th chapter of Job, God at last comes in and simply asks Job a long sequence of questions: "Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?" This is the constellation which looks like a forget-me-not. God is asking Job if Job can keep the seven stars of the Pleiades together in their permanent relationship to each other. Then God asks Job, "Can you guide the Bear with its children?" That is, can you cause the Big Bear (the Big Dipper) to make its nightly trip across the northern sky? To sum it up: our significance is not in ourselves, but in what we are part of, that which we have been made capable of serving.

The second great vision is an ethical one: going far back to Amos in the 8th century B.C., where the prophet wrote of what he knew God was requiring. God says, "...to the melody of your harps I will not listen, but let justice roll down as waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." (Amos 3:23-24) Many years later the same theme is offered by Micah (6:8): "He has showed thee, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with thy God." This, of course, is also the heart of Jesus' teaching. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," a summarizing sentence which Jesus took work for word from Leviticus (19:18) and which he says is the summary of the law and the prophets, that is, of the Bible, for this was the name of the Bible in Jesus' day.

Conclusion: If we do not live by these last two Biblical insights, and if our technology to destroy keeps on advancing, the human destiny will be dust.