“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NRSV). As mentioned previously, I see the fear of the Lord as a matter of awe and reverence as opposed to quaking in your boots fright. It is the wonder and awe at understanding that the God we worship is beyond understanding. God is bigger than our comprehension which implies that God’s grace and God’s love are beyond our comprehension. In this Christmas season, we celebrate that in Jesus the incomprehensible God chose to walk among us in a comprehensible way, which is itself a source of awe and wonder.
Within Christianity we have a resource to grow in understanding and wisdom, one that is under-used in some traditions and ill-used in others: scripture. In every congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America you will find this phrase. “This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” Our pastors are expected to have a passion for the Bible and its study, including learning biblical Hebrew and Greek to encounter the texts in their original languages.
In other words, the Bible is a critical book for the church, central to our self-understanding. We call it inspired. We call it holy. Our worship is centered on it and informed by it.
The Bible is an essential book for Christians and the church, but it is not a magic book. I see the Bible as a source of divine wisdom, but we also have to approach it with the God-given wisdom to see and understand its limitations and its problems. In our modern society, the most glaring issue is that the authors of our biblical texts, while divinely inspired, were also shaped by their time and culture. There are a host of traditions that our current culture would call into question which the authors seem to accept as a divinely-ordained order of things: slavery as part of the social order, women as essentially inferior to men, disease and illness as divine retribution, for example. If we want the message to be relevant, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of Bible that get it wrong. Even though Exodus 21 allows for a servant to declare, “I love my master” and be permanently bound to him, we should be able to declare that slavery has always been wrong. Even though that same chapter invites a master to give his slave a wife as a gift, we should be able to declare that seeing women as property to be traded, gifted or used has always been wrong. We can acknowledge that such ideas were socially acceptable thousands of years ago, but we should not let such passages allow us to continue to objectify people.
The Bible was also never intended as a science textbook. I wonder if ancient creation myths were an attempt at pre-science, trying to explain the way things are based on what was observed. However, Genesis 1 describes life in a snow globe universe, with water outside the dome of the sky (Why is the sky blue?). In Genesis 7:11, “the windows of the heavens were opened” as part of the great flood story (the snow globe fills with water). These stories may well have been based on even more ancient tales, but they are metaphors, meant to express something about who God is, who we are and our relationship to one another. Even though I don’t believe they are historical, I don’t think they should be dismissed as unimportant. Rather, like a beautiful work of art, we should meditate on them, look at them from many angles and look for the divine spark within them.
I understand that for some, what I am describing is a slippery slope. If you doubt the history of one narrative, what does that say about the historicity of the story of the Exodus or the gospel stories? First, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we cannot prove much about the accuracy of any story in the Bible. While later generations of believers developed traditions and commented on the stories and characters, there are very few contemporary resources that confirm the stories or characters. One of issues with Jesus choosing common people to be his disciples is that no one was paying attention to common people. We can confirm the existence of a Herod, Pontius Pilate or Caiaphus the high priest, all leaders at the time, but it is much harder to find records of Simon and Andrew who enter the story as common fishermen.
We don’t need to be able to prove the history in order for the stories to be important. We don’t need our stories to be without doubt in order to learn from them. In fact, a modern desire for proof can keep us from embracing the meaning and importance of the stories themselves. Jesus chooses common people not because he was trying to make the history difficult but as a way of showing that God is concerned with those whom history forgets. The author of Genesis 1 was not trying to write a scientific paper, but rather to point to a God through whom all things have come into being, a universe created with intention and declared, “Good!”
The path of discipleship is not a path of proof but a path of trust. The scriptures are part of the walk. Through them the path is given shape and direction. There is awe and wonder in our scriptural stories. I hope every Christian takes the time to explore them with wisdom and humility.