The Bible: A Unified Voice or Multiple Voices?

The last several weeks we looked at the issue of what an original is, in light of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’s heavy dependence on an original. And while the statement never defines what it means by an original, it is clear from the manuscript evidence that it cannot bear the weight imposed on it by the CSBI. This week, we will change tacks and look at the belief that the Bible never contradicts itself and therefore speaks with a unified voice, even while being progressive in its relation. Article V says,

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.

We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings.

In addition, Article XIV declares:

We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.

We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.

These articles, combined, insist that scripture is unified in what it says (down to the very words, as we noted in previous posts), even while progressively revealing God more and more clearly. This has spawned a virtual cottage-industry of apologetics attempting to harmonize any apparent discordant voices. One example from the Hebrew Scriptures is the different motivators for David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In these two narratives, the cause of David taking a census are disparate, with the Lord being said to have incited (סות) David in Samual, but with Satan (NRSV), or a heavenly adversary (CEB) (שָׂטָן – the lack of the definite article makes the CEB translation preferable to the NRSV in this case), being the one who incites David in Chronicles. While there are better arguments, the typical  way to harmonize these verses is based loosely on the book of Job, where God basically sends Satan to torment his faithful servant. Likewise, the argument goes, God incited David, but he did so through Satan, whom he sent. Of course, the big problem with this is that no text actually says this. So in essence, what becomes canonical is something that has never actually existed.

For this post, though, we will leave that particular issue aside. Instead we will look at whether the canonical books might provide multiple disparate internal voices that do in fact provide conflicting perspectives. Specifically, we will examine three representative samples: A quick look at how Paul understands Abraham’s faith in Romans 4 compared with that of James (2:23-24); Ezra 9-10 in light of the book of Ruth; and the Yehu rebellion (2 Kings 9-10) contrasted with a brief mention of it in Hosea 1:4. What I hope to show is that the canonical books of the Bible don’t always speak with one voice but that this is actually a strength of the scriptures we have, allowing for a canonical dialogue between multiple voices and providing an inherent internal self critique.

Abraham believed God (Romans 4 and James 2:23-24)

With the reformation emphasis on justification by faith, Romans 4 was a key for unlocking the chains of works righteousness that Luther felt bound the Church. Our purpose here is not to, as NT Wright has said, debate 16th century questions giving 19th century answers. Here I simply want to contrast how James and Paul interpret Genesis 15:6 to substantiate their point.

4;2 Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. (CEB)

Paul is making the argument that it is Abraham’s faith that justifies him, or makes him righteous, depending on how you understand the word δικαιόω, not works. Now while I personally side with the idea that Paul here is talking about identity markers of belonging as opposed to how a person is forensically justified before a holy God, either way, what is clear is that Paul is using the passage in Genesis 15:6 to say that works are not how it’s done, but rather, faith alone.

James on the other hand, seems to be directly opposing what Paul is saying, or at least, what Paul was being understood to be saying. And he does so based on the same passage, Genesis 15:6, that Paul uses.

2:21 What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. 23 So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. (CEB)

James here clearly interprets Genesis 15:6 as necessitating works, or “faithful actions,” as the CEB translates it. It is these “faithful actions,” that makes one righteous.  Protestants especially have spent significant energy attempting to show how these two passages don’t actually contradict each other, although Luther himself once referred to this letter as an “epistle of straw,” words he seems to have later reconsidered. Let us not lose the main point of the argument, though. The reason protestants, and Evangelicals in particular, have spent so much time trying to harmonize these two passages is rooted in a theology of the Bible, one that requires the Bible to speak with one voice, because ultimately, the “very words” come directly from God, meaning that it ultimately has a single author. But in this case, we seem to have James providing at the very least, a balance to Paul, if not an outright contradiction.

Ezra 9-10 and the Book of Ruth

In Ezra 9-10 we find the story of how Ezra realized that the men of Israel had married foreign women, and that the women were the reason that Israel had fallen away in sin. Our issue here isn’t with the blatant misogyny represented by this passage (it’s all the women’s fault!) but with its demands for ethnic purity.

9:1 When these tasks were finished, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites haven’t kept themselves separate from the peoples of the neighboring lands with their detestable practices; namely, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. They’ve taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and the holy descendants have become mixed with the neighboring peoples. Moreover, the officials and leaders have led the way in this unfaithfulness. …

10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful by marrying foreign women and adding to Israel’s guilt. 11 But now, make a confession to the Lord God of your ancestors and do his will. Separate yourselves from the neighboring peoples and from the foreign wives.” 12 The whole assembly shouted in reply, “Yes. We must do as you have said. (CEB)

The root of the problem is that the people of Israel have taken foreign wives and this is amplified by their leaders doing the same thing. They have become “mixed” with those who are not holy descendants.  This demand for ethnic purity does not come out of the blue. Deuteronomy 7:3 explicitly warns against intermarrying (חתן) with the inhabitants of the land they are entering. And although the Moabites are not mentioned in this particular passage, the implication is that the prohibition against marrying foreign wives is universal because intermarriage will turn the people away from the Lord. Indeed, this is exactly where Ezra lays the blame for Israel’s apostasy.

Yet, what are we to make of the positive portrayals of foreign wives in other places? Joseph marries Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera (Gen 41:45) and Moses marries Zipporah from Midian (Exod 2:21-22) and a woman from Cush (Num 12:1) (“Intermarriage, Gender and Nation in the Hebrew Bible,” Esther Fuchs, in The Passionate Torah” ed. Danya Rutterberg, 73-78). But maybe the most interesting story about intermarriage is the story of Ruth.

In the book of Ruth, Naomi marries Elimelech, who lives outside of Bethlehem, and they have two sons before settling in Moab. While there, her two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Unfortunately, Elimelech dies and subsequently, so do both their sons, leaving Naomi in a very difficult position, unable to support herself. Telling her daughters to return to their own land and seek husbands there, she begins to return to Judah, where she hopes to live off the traditional charity reflected in the Torah. Orpah follows her mother-in-law’s wishes and returns, but Ruth refuses and returns to Judah with her mother-in-law. Ruth eventually captures the heart of Naomi’s well-to-do relative, Boaz, and marries him according to the customary social support for widows known as levirite marriage (Deut 25:5-10). All of this sounds like an ancient romance with a happy ending. But it doesn’t end there. The final verses provide a remarkable plot twist. It turns out that Ruth the Moabite is actually the grandmother of David! Therefore the archetypical ruler David himself was not of pure blood.

I cannot help but see this story, especially the ending, as a deliberate contrast to the edict of Ezra, whether consciously or not. In Ezra, we have a voice clearly saying that the ethnic bloodlines must remain pure. Yet with Ruth, we have a voice saying that David, the hero of Israelite history, the one who united all the tribes, was actually not of pure decent, with a Moabite grandmother. Therefore, the book of Ruth provides a critique of the ideology espoused in Ezra.

Before summing up, we will look at one more example of disparate voices found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Jehu Rebellion (2 Kings 9-10 and Hosea 1:4)

In 2 Kings 9-10, we find the story of Jehu and his rise to power. Jehu is anointed by one of the sons of the prophets in Elijah’s prophetic order and told to “strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord” (9:7). And Jehu does just that, killing Joram in Jezreel with a bow shot as he fled and commanding the death of Ahaziah as well. After this, he confronts Jezebel, has her thrown from a window and subsequently trampled under foot and eaten by dogs, fulfilling Elijah’s earlier prophecy (1 Kings 21:23). From there, Jehu presides over what can only be called a massacre, slaughtering the remainder of Ahab’s family (10:1-17) and later, the followers of Baal (10:18-28). The massacre of Ahab’s family was “according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah” (10:17) and he is given credit for wiping out Baal worship in Israel.

This portrayal in Kings is nothing but positive in that regard. Although he didn’t quite follow YHWH whole heartedly, it was “only the sins of Jeraboam” that he didn’t turn from. In the narrative, Jehu is fulfilling the command of Elijah, the most powerful prophet in the Deuteronomistic History. Indeed, YHWH says that Jehu “did well to do what was right in my eyes, all that was in my heart you did to the house Ahab” (10:30, my translation).

And yet, oddly enough, there is a strong hint of opposition to Jehu. In Hosea, the Lord commands Hosea to name his first son, “Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel” (1:4 CEB). It seems clear that for Hosea, the bloody massacre that took place in Jezreel is being condemned and will eventually result in the fall of the house of Israel.

Andersen and Freedman appear to disagree that Hosea is condemning the massacre perpetrated by Jehu. They rightly argue that it wasn’t Jehu’s sin, per se, that condemned Jeroboam four generations later, since God doesn’t punish future generations. Instead, they argue, “Hosea is saying that what God did to Ahab and his brood by means of Jehu is exactly what he will now do to Jeroboam and his family, and for the same reasons” (Hosea, 181, emphasis in the original). They go on to say

Jeroboam is blamed, not for resembling Jehu, but in part for the opposite. He was a traitor to the good done by his great-grandfather, he did not maintain Jehu’s “zeal for Yahweh,” zeal shown in his merciless extermination of the Baal cult and all its devotees (ibid).

Their argument in support of this is that Hosea is ostensibly following Elijah (1 Kings 18:18) in the condemnation of Jeroboam, apparently in verse 4:10, although they don’t say specifically. However, the only similar language is that of leaving, or rejecting (עזב), a word that shows up over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, including over 20 times in Isaiah, with over half of those in First Isaiah. So the linguistic connection is tenuous at best. But even if the connection were there, it is unclear how Jeroboam is being blamed for not showing Jehu’s zeal. So, while I hesitate to go against such esteemed scholars as Andersen and Freedman, I do not see any solid evidence to support their position. As best as I can tell, the reason to conclude that Jeroboam, and Israel as a whole, are not being condemned for continuing in the massive bloodshed perpetrated by Jehu is a desire to bring Hosea into alignment with the prophecies of Elijah.


I think it is clear that the canonical books of the Bible do not always speak with one voice. The books were written by people who lived in different times, who had different ideals and different agendas and at times, may even have been altered by scribes so as to support perspectives different from what was originally intended. But if the Bible contains multiple voices, then those voices can be used to provide a form of internal self critique with an on-going dialogue between them. We see this in each of the three examples above, with James providing a critique of Paul, with the book of Ruth providing a critique of Ezra and with Hosea providing a critique of Elijah and the Deuteronomistic History. Now I am not saying this critique was necessarily deliberate on the part of the authors of the books, just that the canon has developed in such a way that it is self critiquing. By ignoring this phenomena and attempting to harmonize those discordant voices, we limit Scripture.

However, there is no reason this need to be thought of as diminishing the Bible’s authority for the modern day believer, although it does make the task of understanding and applying the truths of Scripture much more difficult. No longer can we simply look for a verse to support an assertion.  Instead we must look to the community of voices in the Bible and let their dialogue play out in our contemporary setting in light of God’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ.

The thrust of this series so far has been to show the weaknesses of the CSBI trying make the Bible something the phenomena of Scripture itself doesn’t support. In the next few weeks, we will begin to look at constructive ways in which we might understand what the Bible is.

Do you find the idea of scripture being self-critiquing helpful or threatening?  What are some of the ramifications if this is the case? How might this affect our own questions about God?


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