The Joseph story provides a great example of how biblical texts can be both highly enlightened and unenlightened at the same time. The dynamics at play in the text between Joseph and his brothers convey some beautiful and powerful insights on the nature and process of forgiveness and reconciliation. On the other hand, the ancient theology of God causing events and overriding human stories that is also reflected in the text is … well, not so powerful or beautiful. It is quite unimaginative and unenlightened, but reflects what most Hebrews believed at the time.
The biblical writer sees God intervening and micromanaging the experiences and events in Joseph’s life, which I find to be totally unbelievable and unacceptable. The good news is that I don’t have to believe or accept that theology of the biblical writer to derive spiritual help and insight from the story.
Whatever biblical inspiration means it does not mean that the biblical writers were infallible in their understanding of God’s ways and workings in the world. What we read in these stories are perspectives of faith by people of faith who were every bit as fallible, flawed and finite in understanding as we are.
The Bible is not an answer book.
One day I received an email from a representative of SONday Distributors. The company had a special deal “for churches only” on “a great Bible.” For just $10 each (regular $40 value) we could get a shipment of ANSWER Bibles. That’s right — the ANSWER Bible. Their goal, she wrote, was “to plant a Bible (an ANSWER Bible) in 10,000 homes, organizations, and establishments in communities across America.” She wanted churches to make a commitment to give them away to “lost” people.
This approach is typical of dualistic versions of Christianity. It’s always “the other” who is “lost” and needs what I have. I’m the answer man or woman. I’ve got the truth, brother. We have the answers, sister. Find it here! Amen!
Normally I would click “delete,” but for some reason I couldn’t resist the temptation to be a bit sarcastic. (This was not one of my best days). So I shot her back an email: “No, thanks, Paula (not her real name; I’m protecting the guilty). I’ve heard enough ANSWERS in my day, but if you ever get a Bible that invites people to ask the hard QUESTIONS, let me know.” Well, she responded with a stinging reprimand. She ended the email with: “I say this with the love of Jesus in me.” I couldn’t not respond (with the love of Jesus in me, of course).
Personally, I think if we are going to just pass out Bibles randomly we should at least attach a warning label: “This could be hazardous to your health.” What I have discovered is that people looking for answers in the Bible tend to find the answers they are looking for. We all have a tendency to project the answers we want to find into the biblical text. When we approach a biblical text we bring our biases with us. It’s unavoidable. The biblical authors and communities were no different than us. They were children of their culture and suffered the same sort of indoctrinations we do. Sometimes their experiences of God moved them beyond their biases; sometimes they interpreted their experiences of God within the boundaries of their biases, just as we do.
Biblical inspiration does not mean that we get correct theology. In fact, what we get are diverse theologies by different communities at different times in a progression/regression journey of faith. Biblical inspiration inspires good questions; it does not guarantee right answers.
Beautiful and spiritually powerful biblical stories are inspirational because they draw us into “The Story” of God’s love for and engagement with humankind and the creation. Paradoxes, contradictions and inconsistencies in their theology abound. Their images of God are sometimes petty and puzzling, as are ours. But they invite us and challenge us to take up the quest to know God and make God known, even if the knowledge provided sometimes is woefully inadequate and misguided.