Tag Archives: Bible contradictions

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

Before I begin discussing Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage, I want to clarify a few things about my approach. In this post I’ll make two points about interpreting the Bible on the topic of divorce and remarriage:

  • First, I’ll discuss the futility of taking a hyper-literal approach.
  • Second, I’ll propose one point of confusion in Bible interpretation that divides “liberal” and “conservative” camps.[1]

Finally, I’ll use this second point to introduce the question that will guide me as I examine Jesus’ words in forthcoming posts.

Hyper-Literal Bible Interpretation

I want to begin by emphasizing, as strongly as possible, something that I think is utterly essential to acknowledge: Understanding the NT teaching on divorce and remarriage is not as simple as just taking the words of Jesus and Paul at face value. In fact, if one takes a hyper-literal approach to all the NT teachings on divorce—taking them all as universally-true statements, without any exception—then one ends up with multiple contradictions.

Here are just three examples:

  • Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). On face value, in the minds of most readers, this leaves no room for divorce, period. But Jesus also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Debates of theologians aside, most people reading that for the first time would conclude that divorce is permitted for a husband whose wife has been sexually unfaithful. Which is true?
  • Matthew 19:9 includes the exception noted above. But Mark 10:11, which records the same historical event as Matthew, has Jesus condemning divorce without exception: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Full stop. So, did Jesus give an exception or didn’t he?
  • Paul wrote, “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12). Wait a minute: What does Paul mean by “if…she consents to live with him”? Doesn’t that condition contradict Jesus’ unqualified prohibitions of divorce?

The debate over whether the NT ever permits remarriage, then, cannot be reduced to a debate between those who, in simple faith, take the Bible’s teachings at face value and those who, with hardened hearts, try to weasel around its clear teaching. (Simple faith and hard hearts, of course, do play important roles.) Rather, I suggest, it is more foundationally a debate over which of the Bible’s statements about divorce have the best claim to be taken at face value, without qualification—the prohibitions (almost always general statements[2]) or the exceptions (always directed to specific circumstances).

Again, no one takes all the NT divorce teachings at face value, as being universally true without qualification. It is impossible to do so. And because it is impossible, God clearly did not intend for us to do so. We are misunderstanding him, somewhere, if we try to do so.

With those facts clearly before us, we should free each other for an honest, humble discussion about how best to synthesize the Bible’s varied teachings on divorce.

Should Versus Could

How do Christians end up with such different perspectives on divorce and remarriage? One reason, of course, is that they disagree about which texts should control our reading of other texts. (See above.)

Another underlying cause for disagreement between “liberal” and “conservative” camps, it seems to me, is that one emphasizes the “could” of Scripture while the other emphasizes the “should.” The only way to read Scripture well, however, is to appropriately acknowledge both. Let me explain.

A “liberal” approach to divorce and remarriage emphasizes the passages of Scripture that say a marriage could be ended, whether rightly or wrongly. Since it is clear that marriage is not necessarily permanent, it must not be necessary to try to make it permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach sometimes cites the divorce exceptions of Jesus and Paul (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15), but, in truth, finding specific biblical grounds for divorce is no longer very important. What really matters is just the basic fact that a marriage could come to an end. Such endings may be unfortunate, but they are to be expected and we should just try to navigate them with as much grace as possible, moving on to better relationships when old ones fade.

A ”conservative” approach, in contrast, emphasizes those Scriptures that say a marriage should never be ended by anything besides death. Since it is clearly necessary for marriage to be permanent, marriage must necessarily be permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach acknowledges that some Scriptures seem to talk about marriages ending, but it quickly overrides all such texts with other passages that seem to indicate that even when a marriage is formally ended by divorce, obligations remain. These passages mentioning obligations are then universalized to apply to all divorce situations, no matter what exceptions may appear in a face-value reading of other Scriptures. Thus, any remarriage is always an “adulterous marriage,” or perhaps should not be called a marriage at all.

Neither approach, it seems to me, reads Scripture fairly.

To be honest, I’ve never been seriously tempted by the “liberal” approach. It shows utter disregard for God’s word and for basic human fidelity, despite the apparently loving motives of some who promote it.

The “conservative” approach, however, is more or less what I grew up with. (Please be patient with my simplistic summaries.) Because I this is the approach I have been taught for most of  my life, it is the position I will test in my forthcoming posts.

Did Jesus Teach That Marriage Is Indissoluble?

The basic question I’ll consider in my posts is this: Did Jesus believe that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? Did he believe that marriage is indissoluble?

I’ll begin with the NT’s fullest account of Jesus’ teaching on the subject, found in Matthew 19. I’ll start by examining several of his “should statements” about the permanence of marriage, statements that are sometimes misinterpreted, it seems to me, as proof that a marriage could never be fully broken. After discussing key excerpts from Matthew 19, I’ll aim to synthesize Jesus’ other teachings, too. Throughout, I will focus on my basic question: Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble?

This series, then, will not try to address the rights and wrongs of every imaginable potential divorce situation. Rather, I’m testing a more foundational point. If Jesus really did believe a validly-contracted marriage cannot be dissolved by anything but death, then the “conservative” approach is fundamentally correct and all apparent exceptions must be read as not truly being exceptions after all.

But if we discover that Jesus never actually said anything that indicates he thought marriage is indissoluble, then this shapes how we must read what he did say. It means we have no reason to preclude, with the “conservative” approach, that Jesus’ exceptions cannot be taken at face value.

This series, then, is more about testing a key assumption many readers bring to Jesus’ words than it is about expounding the full meaning and significance of Jesus’ divorce teachings as might be done in a sermon. It is about testing the starting point of our thinking rather than trying to give a lot of practical guidance or application of Scripture to human life. That said, what I plan to share is anything but just theoretical. Answering the question Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble? is just about the most relevant thing I can imagine for anyone who is dealing with a marriage that is currently on the rocks.

Before we begin digging into this question, however, I want to emphasize as strongly as I can that Jesus’ main message about marriage was persistent and clear: God intends marriage to be for life, and any time a marriage union is separated, that marriage has fallen short of God’s creation design. Period. This was the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and it must be the heartbeat of the church’s teaching, too, when taken as a whole.

My inquiry does not question this divine purpose at all. Rather, it focuses on what happens when humans fail to live up to it. Is it possible for humans to separate what God has joined? And is it possible for one marriage to end, other than by death, in such a way that remarriage may be an option that God blesses?

In short, my posts will address the question of what could happen to a marriage if it falls short of what God’s word clearly shows should happen.


I have one more post to share before I dig into Jesus’ words. In my next post I’ll summarize the general perspective on marriage permanence that I have reached after my study on this topic over the past couple of years. I call this perspective “radical faithfulness,” and I’ll contrast it with the positions I’ve called “liberal” and “conservative” in this post.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you.

What are your thoughts on a hyper-literal approach to the NT teachings on divorce and remarriage? Have you observed confusion between the “should” and “could” of Scripture on this topic? What parts of Jesus’ teaching on the topic do you hope I dig into as I investigate Jesus’ view on marriage permanence?

Thanks for reading!


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[1] I’m using scare quotes because I’m not attempting to precisely define, identify, or affirm either group. In my usage here, “liberal” simply means more permissive of divorce and “conservative” less permissive. Readers will have differing opinions on which position, if either, best conserves biblical doctrine and God’s liberal grace.

[2] I say “almost” because the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 7:11 is tied to a specific circumstance.


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A Commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles — Merrill (Review)

Merrill, Eugene H. A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015). 637pp. Publisher’s description. Review by Phillip Long. (Amazon new price: $39.99, unavailable on Kindle , cheaper used.)  A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles (Kregel Exegetical Library)

Over the past month or so, much of my daily Bible reading has been in 1 and 2 Chronicles. My companion for these books has been Eugene Merrill’s new commentary. I am now several chapters into the second volume of Chronicles and have read all of Merrill’s comments on the text so far. I am enjoying the experience.

This is my first time reading through a Chronicles commentary. I came to Merrill’s book hoping for at least two things: (1) A clearer grasp of the special theological thrust of these often-overlooked books. (2) Some help to reconcile the apparent contradictions between factual details in Chronicles and the books of Samuel and Kings. Merrill has satisfied me quite well on the first point, but less so on the second.

Chronicles

Summary of Book

Merrill’s book is part of a new series of OT commentaries from the Kregel Exegetical Library. Like other volumes in this series, it targets a wide range of readers. Much of the commentary text is very readable and will be useful for most readers. The Scripture text is presented in the NIV (old, 1984 edition). On the other hand, sometimes Hebrew words are left untranslated, and detailed “text-critical notations” are presented after the NIV text—something I am unlikely to ever find useful.

This series appears to be aimed most directly at pastors, though it is a bit uneven in execution and format. For example, the volume on Judges and Ruth (by Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.) includes a long annotated outline of a 10-part sermon series for Judges, along with more “homiletical trajectories” described throughout the commentary. The 3-volume set on Psalms (by Allen P. Ross) includes extended guidance for writing an exegetical outline, an exegetical summary, an expository outline, and a single expository idea for a psalm, along with a “message and application” section at the end of each psalm. Merrill, in contrast, does not provide either sermon outlines or guidance on taking a text from exegesis to exposition, though he does include brief “application of the theology of…” sections throughout. Readers who like one volume may be disappointed to find another is structured differently.

Merrill’s introduction includes helpful discussions of all the expected topics, including the historical and cultural setting, authorship (“the Chronicler”), the author’s sources, the book’s placement in the OT canon, literary forms and genres, and theology.

The major objective of the Chronicler was to provide a theological interpretation of Israel’s past interlaced with great hope for an eschatological renewal of the Davidic house, one bound to Yahweh its God by an indissoluble covenant. It may not be too bold to suggest that the compilers of the canon shared this same conviction and thus placed the book where they did [at the end of the Hebrew OT]. (p. 46)

This quote mentions two of the main themes Merrill identifies in Chronicles (the house of David and the renewed covenant), to which he adds a third: the restored temple.

The body of Merrill’s commentary discusses the text section by section (usually not verse by verse). Sections range in length from several verses to an entire chapter, and they are grouped in nine commentary chapters, such as “The Genealogies” or “The Rise of David.” Also included are:

  • 13 Charts and Tables (e.g.: “Holy War Technical Terms”)
  • 12 Excursuses (e.g.: “The Angel of YHWH”)
  • 9 Theological Discourses (one for each commentary chapter, thus covering all of Chronicles)

To show how this works, I’ll zero in on one of Chronicles’ most famous chapters–1 Chronicles 21. Merrill entitles this “David’s Census and Its Aftermath.” This is the final section in a chapter called “The Exploits of David” (1 Chron. 15:1-21:30). Here you will find:

  • The text of 1 Chronicles 21 in the NIV translation
  • Text-critical notations (comparing word usage with Samuel)
  • 7 pages of commentary on 1 Chronicles 21 (2 to 4 footnotes per page)

In addition, since this is the end of a commentary chapter, you will find these:

  • “The Theology of the Exploits of David” (1 page discussing the theology of chapters 15 through 21, especially the David’s portrayal as an ideal, messiah-like king)
  • “Application of the Theology of the Exploits of David” (1 page discussing three timeless theological truths)
  • “Excursus 4: The Angel of YHWH” (1 page)
  • “Excursus 5: David and Royal Sonship (2 pages)
  • “Excursus 6: The Theological Ethics of Holy War” (3 pages)
  • “Chart 5: The Seven Nations of Canaan” (1 page)
  • “Chart 6: Holy War Technical Terms” (1 page)

Assessment of Book

Strengths: Merrill is an expert on OT history, so this commentary is surefooted on issues like historical dates and making relevant connections to other OT passages. He has also written on OT theology, so he does well at tracing the main theological themes of Chronicles, making connections to the rest of the OT and even to the NT. Judging by the footnotes, though Merrill is now an elderly man, he has remained up-to-date on recent secondary scholarship. His pastoral heart also shines through, producing occasional little gems like this: “Man at his best falls far short of God at his ‘worst'” (comment on David’s dilemma of choosing a punishment in 1 Chron. 21:13).

Most pastors or Bible teachers should find this commentary useful. I haven’t compared it carefully with others (see this list), but can imagine there are much worse choices (older, dryer, more critical, etc.). In particular, if you want to trace the main theological themes of Chronicles, Merrill will serve you very well.

Weaknesses: This commentary disappointed me primarily in two ways. First, for a technical work of this stature, there is an astounding number of editorial or proofreading errors. I counted about 28 in the introduction and the chapters covering 1 Chronicles, and spotted more scanning the second half. For example:

  • The outline used for the commentary chapters (pp. 8-11) differs unpredictably from the outline presented in the introduction (pp. 70-71).
  • Two of the 12 excursuses are actually identical (p. 256 and 313), except for their titles and the sequence of their paragraphs!
  • Pagination problems: Multiple charts, outlines, and footnotes are on different pages than indicated in the text. (“The following chart lists the nations…”; p. 314, but the chart is on p. 258.)
  • The chart on page 258 has formatting problems, hiding some headings.
  • A mistake in either math or grammar wrongly suggests that Chronicles mentions Jerusalem “more than Ezra-Nehemiah” (p. 106).
  • There are multiple problems with typeface, punctuation, missing words, or wrong word substitutions (“David [should be the Chronicler] was clearly aware of the Samuel source…”; p. 238).

I have not found errors of this number in commentaries by other major publishers such as Eerdmanns, Zondervan, or Baker Academic. Perhaps Kregel is rushing their new commentary series to press, trying to catch up to the other publishers? (Note to Kregel Publications: If you want a list of all the errors I found, please contact me. In fact, I may also be open to a job as a copy editor!)

The second way in which Merrill’s commentary left me hungry was his handling of the apparent factual contradictions that Chronicles presents. He does a very good job of noting that there is nothing automatically deceitful about the Chronicler’s intent of presenting David in a positive light, as a messianic figure, thus overlooking most of the darker episodes in his life. Every historian is selective, and the Chronicler is simply presenting the aspects of David’s life that will be most beneficial for his post-exilic readers to consider, based on their own needs.

To omit historical information is not a matter of deceitfulness, evasiveness, or intellectual dishonesty. It shows bias, indeed, but that does not and should not be a criterion for either truthfulness or, in the case of Scripture, inerrancy. (p. 239)

All this I heartily affirm. But I am still hungry for better explanations of the apparent contradictions in Chronicles. (By “apparent” I do not mean “certain” but “visible.”) For example, consider this commentary on 1 Chronicles 3:1-24, which notes that the Chronicler does not always provide the same list of David’s sons:

The differences between Samuel and Chronicles [in this chapter] may be easily explained, perhaps, but the differences within Chronicles are not. The best suggestion is to suppose, as many scholars do, that the book is more a compilation of texts than one authored by a single author at one time. In any case, the overall message conveyed by the genealogies, despite their similarities and differences, is little affected. (p.107)

Maybe it is okay that the Chronicler does not always present the same list of David’s sons? But what about when Samuel says Joab counted 800,000 men from Israel and 500,000 from Judah (2 Sam. 24:4-9), while the Chronicler says he reported 1,100,000 men from Israel and 470,000 men from Judah (1 Chron. 21:4-7)? Is it enough to say that the difference “can be explained by Chronicles’ use of a tradition different from Samuel’s” (p. 246)? This solution, of course, suggests that Samuel and Chronicles never matched. (There are other proposed resolutions for this passage, though I have not seen any that seems obviously right to my finite mind. I invite solutions.)

Later in the same chapter (1 Chron. 21:25-26) we read that David paid Araunah 600 shekels of gold for his land; Samuel records only 50 shekels (2 Sam. 24:24). Merrill’s solution for this problem is even more puzzling to me:

Neither text finds help through other versions and manuscripts so the answer must lie in an ancient misreading, no doubt in or by the source used by the Chronicler. (p. 250)

Perhaps Merrill is right; perhaps the books of Samuel and Chronicles never matched each other on all such factual details, not even in their original manuscripts. And perhaps the mismatch involves prior “misreading” which would not be explainable as anything other than factual errors even if we possessed all the data. Perhaps not all apparent contradictions can be rightly chalked up to copyists’ errors in subsequent centuries. If so, however, our theology of the trustworthiness of Scripture (something Jesus clearly affirms) must account for such realities.

Perhaps Rodney Yoder’s comments about Bible texts and translations (in The Story Behind the Versions) can point us in the right direction:

Sometimes the people copying or translating the Word of God simply made mistakes.

So, if people made mistakes in preparing the Bible version I am reading, am I still actually reading the very inspired Word of God? Yes, because God chose to give us that infallible Word in a way that it is not lost amid a few human blunders… The kind of faults or errors that creep into a text through normal human copying and translating will never destroy God’s message.

If acknowledging that our copy of the Scriptures is not perfect makes us uneasy, maybe our faith is resting on a faulty foundation. Our faith must not rest on whether or not we have access to a flawless copy of God’s Word. Rather, our faith must rest on God Himself. We know God has revealed Himself to mankind… We do not need to worry that God will fail to reward those who diligently seek Him, or that He will fail to lead us into all truth. (pp. 7-8)

For whatever reason, God has not given us… a completely flawless copy of the Book that He inspired. But He has assured us that His Word [the message the Bible proclaims] is forever settled in Heaven… It seems that He intended the Bible to be a treasure in an earthen vessel, so that all could see the power is from Him and not of us. (p. 70)

So I applaud Merrill for his honesty in noting apparent contradictions, but I long for a better explanation of how the text of Chronicles can be integrated into a coherent theology of the trustworthiness of Scripture.

Conclusion

Merrill has written a solid commentary on Chronicles. It is packed full of historical and theological insights. It has helpfully spurred my thinking on topics such as the OT priesthood and holy war. I look forward to reading the rest of Merrill’s work as I complete my devotional reading of Chronicles!

This book shows good scholarship but poor editing.
I give it 4 out of 5 stars.


Do you have a favorite Chronicles commentary? Do you have insights on how to integrate the apparent contradictions of Chronicles into a theology of the trustworthiness of Scripture? (Do you agree with Rodney Troyer’s perspective on the text of Scripture?) Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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