Good Questions: Why is the Bible so long and difficult?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

When we explore Good Questions, we could look to the great philosophers, gurus, TV therapists or the intoxicated ramblings of a neighbor – or into our own feeble hunches. As Christian-wannabes, we understand that the touchstone, the roots holding up the tree, the script for our lives and even the world is somehow enshrined in a single book, the Bible.

But couldn’t God have bequeathed a simpler, clearer, more readable book to make things clear? Your mother or the pastor says “Read your Bible.” You suspect you should, but it feels like “Take your medicine,” or maybe “Take up pole-vaulting.” Not a page turner, it’s easy to put down, a mishmash of fabled stories, genealogies, fiery sermons, personal letters; no author could get such a goulash published today. It’s long: 1500+ pages, 783,137 words, 66 books in a book, written on the other side of the earth 2000+ years ago, two-thirds of it in a language that reads right to left. The other third? Greek to me!

And what a strange world it presents: nomads slaughtering turtledoves and people, polygamy and cheating, quarrels, wars, and constant threats of fires and floods. The heroes, Jacob, Solomon, David, Paul? Not nice people. More heroes, Abraham, Moses, Peter, not courageous or faithful but chicken most of the time. Clearly this is not a “go thou and do likewise” book. God, give us a shorter book, with memorable bullet points, and exemplary stories, not this.

Somehow, being long and frankly hard to understand must be the point. Like learning to pole-vault or play the piano or speak Italian, it takes time. After all, it’s about God. If you could read and master seven memorable propositions, it wouldn’t truly be about God, and couldn’t resolve the complexity that is me and you and life in this world. Chris Green even suggests that “some of what seems to us wrong or strange in the Scriptures is in point of fact simply a reflection of what is wrong and strange in us.” Even what seems crystal clear in the Bible tears the lid off a boxful of dizzying challenges. Mark Twain said “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that worry me; it’s the parts I do understand.”

You have to admire the fact that this particular book is roomy enough to allow space for God’s best person ever to cry out “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, for a novice to faith to say “I believe; help my unbelief,” for one whole book (Ecclesiastes) to be devoted to pointing out how pointless life is, and for another whole book (Job) to be devoted to the downright belligerent, exasperated things a woeful sufferer hollered at God who said almost nothing in reply.

Dysfunctional families, confused people making lousy decisions, misunderstanding God and inflicting harm on others, mental illness and sophomoric behavior: not only is this book entertaining, but it suggests God isn’t put off by nonsense, that those of us who are a mess have a place in here, and every sort of thing that has happened on this planet is touched on in some way.

This is a clue into how in the life of faith there’s plenty of earthiness and complication curled up in there. We read, and read, not expecting quick, easy answers. As Rowan Williams beautifully articulated it, “This is what God wants you to hear,” the poetry, history, wars, visions, chronicles, genealogies, letters. God is pleased when we read, and accumulated reading and reflection over a lifetime brings you (hopefully) closer to God. Parts of it are troubling – perhaps God’s strategy to rattle our cage and awaken deeper truth in us. Or, we know that something in the Bible (genocide, for example) is atrocious because of what we learn from far louder and longer voices in the rest of the Bible. Williams again: “God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them, this is the response they made… Where are you in this?’ We do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.”

Next: is the Bible inspired? or even true?