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Voices of God: Religious Diversity in the Bible

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The more seriously one takes the Bible, the more seriously one should be willing to wrestle with its internal complexities.

The Bible is a remarkable collection of countless people's perspectives from a broad range of locations over the course of centuries. In this amazing assortment of texts, we see all of these different people -- individuals and groups -- reflecting on who they are, who their God is and how they see the relationships between themselves, their God, their land, their neighbors and more.

This is not a matter of liberal vs. conservative interpretation of the Bible. Anyone who wants to read the Bible with care -- Jewish, Protestant or Catholic, liberal or conservative, academically inclined or less so -- should honestly engage the variety of voices the Bible contains. Liberal and conservative readers can interpret texts wisely, reasonably, and still differently from one another, but one approach that is not intellectually supportable is the attempt to harmonize the Bible's many voices all into one.

I am prompted to write this after observing a pattern in some of the responses to my recent piece, "Biblical Standards for Marriage," in which I addressed the range of models for marriage within the Bible. Many comments simply insisted, "The Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman," rather than actually engaging with the texts that portray marriage otherwise (even if disagreeing with my conclusions). Although it may be human nature to (subconsciously) explain away the views that do not conform to one's own and to highlight the views that do, the thoughtful reader must be willing to deal with the Bible's internal diversity.

Many educated readers are familiar with the famously different versions of some stories, such as the two consecutive creation stories, or the two interwoven flood stories (does the first man come at the beginning of creation or at the end? Is there one pair of each kind of animal on the ark or seven?). These are not the types of differences I am concerned with here. What I would like to emphasize is the presence of diverse perspectives in the Bible, actually diverging viewpoints, on the same issues.

The spectrum of voices in the Bible is astonishing. Writers of biblical texts reflect northern and southern perspectives (Israelite and Judahite); urban and rural; rich and poor; they are priests and poets, shepherds and elite literate professionals in royal scribal circles; people living in Jerusalem and Babylon and Persia and more. It should therefore not surprise us that some of these people differ in how they see the world.

The prophets Isaiah of Jerusalem and Micah of Moresheth, for instance, differed greatly in their views of the same situation at the same time. Both prophets lived in the south, but in different worlds. Isaiah was an urbanite, living in Jerusalem and connected to the royal court (he knew King Hezekiah). Micah lived out in a rural part of southern Judah, and his prophecy included harsh criticism of the arrogance of Jerusalem. Facing the threat of Assyrian conquest, the two prophets disagreed about the fate of the city. The Jerusalemite Isaiah saw the city as inviolable. According to his prophecy, God established Jerusalem, and even when judged by God and brutally attacked by Assyria, it would stand firm because God was in its midst. The rural prophet Micah, on the other hand, prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, and vehemently criticized the prophets who said that Jerusalem would stand firm because God was in its midst (Micah 3:10-11). In these two figures, one a Jerusalemite and sure of the city's permanence, and the other rural and critical of prophetic arrogance about Jerusalem, we see two prophets whose divergent viewpoints reflected their personal experiences.

Later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the exile to Babylon, we have another opportunity to see two quite different prophetic viewpoints. In the oracles of Isaiah 40-55, religious renewal after the exile is said to come through the people's faith and hope. Ezekiel, however, who was both a prophet and a Zadokite, of the family of priests, believed that it should take the form of the rebuilding of the temple and reestablishment of traditional priestly religion. If some religious groups today highlight the oracles of Isaiah 40-55 over the temple-centered oracles of Ezekiel, this is purely a matter of which texts jibe with such readers' own values. The divergent prophetic viewpoints are equally present in the Bible.

Prophets also differed radically on the question of who would be vindicated and who would be condemned. This comes through vividly in the texts prophesying the "Day of the Lord," which in the Bible refers to a single specific time of judgment (not just any old day when God might judge the enemy of the hour). It is clear in every "Day of the Lord" text that on that decisive day God will destroy the wicked, and some of these texts also say that the righteous will escape judgment. The major difference between the various "Day of the Lord" texts -- stunningly -- is who's who. Many prophets assumed that the "Day of the Lord" would be one of judgment against Israel's enemies. In Isaiah 13, the Day of the Lord will be one of judgment against Babylon; in Ezekiel 30, Joel 3, Zechariah 14 and Obadiah it will be a dark day for all of the nations; and in the end of Joel 2 and the end of Zephaniah 1, the Day is against all the inhabitants of the earth. However, in Isaiah 2, Joel 1-2, Amos 5, Zephaniah 1 and Malachi 4, the Day of the Lord will actually befall Israel itself! Amos 5:18 demonstrates the range of opinion in this prophet's time regarding the Day of the Lord. Amos asks the people why they want the Day of the Lord to come, and sees that their desire for the Day reflects their belief that it would be one of judgment against other nations, which is the very idea we saw expressed by other biblical prophets above. Amos disagrees, however, and warns that the Day will befall them: "Alas," he says, "it will be darkness and not light."

Sometimes prophets' religious differences created political differences as well. Israel was frequently under the threat of foreign domination, and so the question of how to respond was a bit of a hot-button issue. Isaiah was fervently opposed to the very idea of making alliances with other nations, not only in the specific political conflict he faced, but as a fundamental principle, because he equated it with reliance upon human strength instead of upon God. His prophecies were sweeping: he found the notion of a treaty with Egypt inherently misguided, not because it was Egypt in particular, but on principle, "because the Egyptians are human, and not God!" (Isaiah 31:3). Jeremiah, on the other hand, vehemently advocated capitulating to the enemy. He urged his people to serve the king of Babylon and the Babylonians in order to survive. Moreover, Jeremiah repeated many times to ignore the prophets who said not to capitulate, because they prophesied falsely (Jeremiah 27). (We can also see a range of viewpoints within some texts, but this only complicates the matter, and cannot responsibly be used as a rationale for ignoring the primary messages of each text.)

Some readers will find the acknowledgement of a multiplicity of voices in the Bible objectionable. But these are texts written by human beings with human viewpoints. Attributing perfection to them is idolatry, and God-as-ventriloquist is bad theology. So given that the writers were human, wouldn't we expect a better reflection of reality to come from the collection of a spectrum of voices than from any one person purporting to speak for everyone? And if a person believes God to be behind the process of these many texts being written and preserved and recopied and collected and becoming "The Bible," it should, for such a person, be that much more important to explore the relationship between the writers' perspectives.

Religious diversity is an inherent part of the biblical tradition. The Bible has significant internal variation, and there are different thoughtful ways to deal with that, but ignoring it is not one of them. My own take on this is that the rich complexity of the spectrum of voices is the very thing that gives the Bible its remarkable texture and depth, and that if the Bible is used as a "model" for anything, perhaps it could be used as a model for honest engagement with such a variety of viewpoints. But that's just me, and I'd expect another voice to say something different.