The devil in the details

During a conversation about religions, one person said “the differences are only very small details.” That is often very true, and some details are insignificant in the big picture. Some are not. We are, as members of related denominations, more alike than different, but there are reasons behind some of the differences. This is where the deceptions occur which are used to attack faith.

I have a friend, I’ll call him “Mark”, who is agnostic. He was raised in a religious family, but when he had questions he received unsatisfactory answers. He paid attention in church, but found the information confusing, even contradictory. Given only bits and pieces of scripture reinforced his impression the Bible was self contradicting. So he gave up, still believing in the existence of a creator, but unwilling to believe a book full of contradictions.

The Bible is not the story of the events of a weekend. It is the history covering several thousand years. As history develops, ways of explaining and interpreting it change, the very language in which it is recorded changes. Over the course of a decade, Mark repeated several times the Bible was self contradicting, yet at no point could he produce any contradictions. I believe he perceived them, he just couldn’t pin them down.

Another friend recently said “very little in the Bible is concrete.” As evidence he offered “Depending on the religion, there are several different organizations of what the 10 commandments consist of.” This is remarkably similar to Mark’s point of view. In fact, the differences in “The ten commandments” are based on the way they are presented. In the twentieth chapter of Exodus, Moses receives the stone tablets, which no longer exist. The commandments are not numbered, or separated five per tablet, in fact one interpretation is they were two copies of the commandments, one on each tablet, as is common in legal contracts. The way in which the they are presented is narrative, so various denominations have punctuated them differently, all coming out with ten commandments, although the number and contents of each individual commandment does not always remain the same. Then in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy Moses retells the story to a younger generation. There are differences in the phrasing, but the essential commandments remain the same. But this is only the beginning.

The choice of a Sabbath is based on theology. At the time the commandments were given, they were given to the Jews, who honor the Sabbath as the seventh day, based on creation as recorded in Genesis. Christians began to celebrate the first day, “the Lord’s day,” as the Sabbath in the second century, as Christianity became independent of Judaism.

Various translations differ on “Thou shall not kill.” The Hebrew words “לא תרצח (lo tirtzach)” are alternately translated as “Thou shall not kill” and “Thou shall not murder”. There are many examples of accepted killing and self defense in the Bible, it seems clear the commandment addresses unjustified killing, but there remain people who choose to see this as a contradiction.

This one came up in my research and presents the reason I keep looking deeper. German Theologian Albrect Alt has suggested “Thou shall not steal” was originally intended against stealing people, as in kidnapping or slavery. The Talmudic interpretation is “Thou shall not kidnap.”

In what is part of the first or second commandment (depending on your numbering) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” has been stretched to extremes. The Catholic Church claims that images and statues representing holy figures are not worshiped. Protestants claim that images of Jesus are of the man and not of the Son of God, and Protestant crucifixes are bare of Christ’s form. Jews won’t even spell the word “God”, and Muslims have elevated the prophet Mohammed to a Godlike state in that any representation of him is viewed as veneration.

In the 3500 years that have passed since the time of Moses, tens of billions of people have considered the words of the Bible, people who have spoken thousands of languages. The words are far less important than the message, and that message continues to be shared. There will be those who choose to see contradictions, or manipulate interpretations to fit their desires.

If I say I am averse to lying, and acknowledge I have lied in my life, does that represent a contradiction? Does it suggest everything I say is a lie, or that I have struggled with the circumstances of life and regret my transgressions? There are many ways to interpret words, and much of what we believe comes from within. When it come to eternity, it makes sense to carefully examine the totality of a belief system, rather than discarding everything based on differences in punctuation.

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One comment on “The devil in the details

  1. Mike R says:

    I very much like your patience with nonbelievers, trying to understand the world from their view. We would all be better if we followed your example. Toe-to-toe debates rarely have led to much in my life, whereas a sincere sharing of what I understand to be the truth, and a desire to understand the other person’s perspectives, needs, and struggles have been far more effective.

    Liked by 1 person

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