As history, the Bible isn’t quite normal

No, really. I’ll explain.

As historical records go, the Bible is pretty weird.

I guess I’ve always known that on some level, but it came really clear after I wrote about history and how we get it wrong. In that article, I mentioned Chinua Achebe’s quoting the proverb about how the history of the hunt is written to glorify the hunter. And a friend commenting on Facebook where I shared it, offered an example in the records of British history. Here’s what he said:

Histories of the former British Empire seldom dwell on the atrocities and abuses, the racism and the prejudice, which built that Empire. The defeated deserved it, the slaves didn’t matter; the freedom fighters were terrorists.

And reading this, it struck me: this is exactly what the Bible isn’t.

It dwells on the atrocities and abuses, the racism and the prejudice that built the church.

It’s all in there.

The defeated are often shown to be undeserving, the slaves matter, the freedom fighters are revolutionary.

The heroes presented in the Biblical record are hardly heroic. There’s no need to dig up dirt on them: the record itself provides more than enough. And the dirt has often been well used indeed.

Not even God is spared as the Biblical record, again and again, presents its most important figure in ways decidedly unflattering.

And perhaps least flattering of all is a story that you probably don’t hear preached on very often: of a man, Job, who experiences the most horrific suffering — and at God’s instance, no less.

The same book that insists on the existence of a good and loving God unapologetically portrays him in ways that seem almost anything but.

The whole thing feels rather reminiscent of that uncle from the village whose character you admire but whose manners you find very embarrassing. So you learn to embellish a little (just a little) when introducing him to your friends, only for him to end up giving the lie to your efforts by acting like himself after all.

(Of course, those who like him will like him anyway.)

Job himself, in one of my most-loved passages from his story, denounces this all-too-human instinct:

“Are you going to keep on lying ‘to do God a service’? to make up stories ‘to get him off the hook’? Why do you always take his side? Do you think he needs a lawyer to defend himself? (Job 13:7‭-‬8 MSG)

Those words bowled me over the first time I read them over a decade ago. Who would have imagined the record would contain such talk? And even more, that the talk would be endorsed? (Job is described at the end as having said nothing wrong.)

And yet, is it truly so surprising? Isn’t this what one should reasonably expect if indeed God exists: that he doesn’t need defending, least of all from mere mortals?

No, the Bible isn’t your typical record.

Not with that kind of dangerously brutal honesty.


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