The problem with the Bible

by Sara Miles

Here is the problem I have with the Bible. Mostly, I spend my life lurching back and forth between the reasonable hope that I’m basically OK and things are going pretty well; and the sickening conviction that I’m a wicked, terribly mistaken lost cause and the whole world is on its way to hell in a handbasket. I can’t be sure which of my own impulses are genuinely good and which are sneakily greedy and conniving: how can I honestly sort out my tangled desires? Looking around, I notice generous, righteous people feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, but they’re surrounded by all kinds of evildoers—angry women screaming at refugee children in Texas, violent men kidnapping children in Israel and Palestine, ostensibly decent citizens like me who do nothing to stop the bad guys.

So I’d like the Holy Scriptures, which after all our tradition claims “containeth all things necessary for salvation,” to shed just a little light on the subject of good and evil. I’d like the Bible to show me how to reliably judge other people, recognize devil-followers, and teach me how to be a good person, and I’d like the Bible to offer instructive lessons about how things should be, in this miserably hard business of being a human trying to relate to other humans and to God. Is that too much to ask?

Well, apparently it is too much to ask. Because the Bible isn’t about showing how things should be, but about how things really are.

Let’s look at exemplary figures like Jacob. That little snake. Dishonest and tricky, Jacob is one of the least trustworthy characters in the Bible. First, he cheats his not-so-smart big brother Esau out of his birthright and gets away with it. Then he cheats him again, this time out of their father’s blessing, and gets away with that too. Finally Jacob lands in trouble, but his mom covers up for him and sends him off on a journey, and he winds up alone in the desert, on the outs with his people, and terribly afraid.

Jacob lies down on a pillow of stone, and God….does God set him straight? Punish him for his sleaziness? Teach him a lesson? No, God appears in a dream and announces that now Jacob is going to get vast tracts of valuable land, be blessed with family and honor and luck; God promises to stick with Jacob and his descendants forever and give them whatever they need.

Just like that. No retribution or wrath. No “aren’t you sorry for your bad behavior?” No, “Change your attitude and I’ll see about rescuing you from the pit you dug from yourself.” Just unconditional blessing. And Jacob has the sense, for a single second, to be afraid…. but then he acts tougher than he feels and reverts to his snake-like ways, receiving the blessing as if he deserves it. He even sets conditions on God. Gee, thanks, God, says Jacob. Well, I guess if you keep on like this, giving me help and clothes and food and fixing things with my family, I guess I’ll worship you, and hey, if you keep delivering even more goodies, I can give you back, um, ten percent of everything you give me.

What are we supposed to do with a God who insists on sticking with people like Jacob and his descendants, through all their lies and manipulations?

What are we supposed to learn from seeing blessings showered on those who never appreciate the goodness God shows them, never mend their ways, never get over their insecurities? This is the way things are, says the Bible: God doesn’t care if we fail to appreciate what he does for us––he’ll just keep appearing with beautiful visions in the middle of the night, keep faith in the loneliest deserts, keep offering frightened little snakes like you and me another chance to receive his promise, his love, his Word.

And then there are the parables. Even in a parable as apparently righteous as the story of the darnel and the wheat, Jesus, infuriatingly, won’t tell us how things should be. They’re not up to us, is all he says. God has nothing to say about how we’re supposed to judge, to sort out good and evil; God refuses to give directions about how we should reward the righteous and punish the wicked. God just gazes at the whole complicated mess– enemies and friends, devils and angels, good guys and bad guys, weeds and wheat scrambled together–and blesses everything, biding his time, saying, Let it grow. Jesus explains, Shut up. That is: if you have ears, listen.

Do you feel me? Is this fair? No, it is not fair. But it is the word of God.

Last Friday was a rough day at our church food pantry. It had been a rough week. Two of our regular volunteers, Elena and Tatiana, had gone home to the Ukraine to help their families, a few days before pro-Russian separatists shot down a commercial airliner. Their friend, Valentina, a big, bossy Russian lady, marched up to me at the pantry, beside herself, weepy. “Sara,” she cried, grabbing my arm, “I don’t hear nothing from Elena and Tatiana, I am so worry. I feel so bad, I am shamed to be Russian.” Valentina is kind of an over-the-top drama queen, so I just nodded and tried not to get sucked in. Then I asked Leah, an older Jewish woman from New York, about her family in Israel. She told me she hadn’t slept for days. “They’re shooting rockets where my sister lives,” she said, “I’m going crazy watching the news. And then I see those pictures of Palestinian mothers with dead kids. My people, we did this? It makes me sick; I’m so ashamed.” I hugged Leah, but I was afraid to express solidarity with her crazy settler sister. It’s all too hard: Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Valentina, Leah—and me, who doesn’t know how to decide which bad guys to be mad at. Me, who’s afraid I might love the wrong people. Me, who thinks God only loves some of us, and I better hedge my bets and be on the right side.

In the middle of the field, the world, Scripture says, all kinds of weeds are jammed up right next to the precious grain. The field, the world, is a total mess. And so often we believe we’re the ones chosen to clean it up. But if we think we can tell the weeds from the wheat, the purely good people from the purely wicked, we are kidding ourselves—about the shameful evil inside our own hearts, and the humanity inside our enemies. And if we try to root out what we think is evil by ourselves, we will also destroy everything that feeds us.

Anyone who has ears should listen to the good news: The life-giving wheat, the bread of life, is already in the field; the Kingdom of Heaven is already in the world, growing and growing: and the enemy cannot root it out. All the enemy can do is try to convince us to pull it up, trick us into being overzealous weeders who, in our eagerness to eradicate the bad guys, will step all over the tender green shoots of love.

In the middle of the heartbreak at the food pantry, Leah and I were in the kitchen, putting candles on a homemade cake that another volunteer had baked to celebrate someone’s birthday. “My friends here are liberals,” Leah said, “so they just want to blame Israel, like the Israelis are all evil and the Palestinians are all good.” I felt incredibly uncomfortable, but Leah went on. “Believe me,” she said, “I see how messed-up Israel is. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Everyone is so convinced they’re right, it’s all someone else’s fault, and before you know it we’re killing each other’s kids.” She wiped some frosting off the platter. “Thanks for asking about my sister,” Leah said softly. “The worst thing is how my friends don’t even talk with me about it. Couldn’t somebody just say, how are you doing, how’s your family? Like instead of being so convinced we know who’s right and who’s wrong, couldn’t we just have a little kindness?”

The problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t tell us who to blame for the suffering we endure, or the suffering we cause to others. It just tells us that we are living among all the other plants in the field. We must trust God, turn away from darkness, toward the light, and grow. Because God, the only judge, is busy sowing himself into the heart of all mortals, and changing us into himself.

Sara Miles is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and the author of City of God: Faith in the Streets

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5 Comments
  1. Rosemary

    It seems to me the best point of the Jacob story is that when he comes down from the great wrestling match, who is waiting for him but old Esau with 400 of his ruffians?

    Jacob steps out to meet him with his concubines and their kids just behind him, and Leah and her kids behind them, and his favorite Rachel and her brood bringing up the rear.

    And what does Esau do? He runs to meet his scummy brother and embraces him! What does that tell us about how God expects to us to act?

    [Rosemary – please sign your last name too – next time you comment — thanks, editor]

  2. I think it was ABC William Temple who said “I believe Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation…and quite a bit that isn’t.” I’m inclined to agree!

    That said, I have a notion that the parts we interpret as “necessary” for us now, “necessary” 200 years ago, and “necessary” 2000 years ago might have certain nuances to it…but yet it’s all there…our job is to sort it out!

  3. bill050351

    When I start obsessing about the paradoxes I find that am truly lost in the wasteland. The bible is full of paradox. As is the human condition. I guess I’m inclined to view our bible as a guide book without maps, a commentary on many possible routes to follow and some possible consequences I might experience.

    [Bill050351 – please sign your name when you comment – thanks — editor]

  4. Kathy Staudt

    I was heartened when I learned that one of the practices of the Rabbinic tradition is to keep all the interpretations, even those that are rejected in a current time. It may be that an interpretation that is wrong for us now will be needed by another generation, for Torah is infinitely meqningful, and every interpretation faithfully offered is part of the ongoing relqtionship between God and humanity. This is another way of affirming ABC Temple’s “and a good deal more.”

  5. Kathy Staudt

    I mean ABC Temple’s “and quit q bit that isn’t – sorry to misquote.

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