Is the Bible really useful? (2 Timothy 3:16)

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Please tell me how the following scriptures (and MANY others!) are useful — and would you want your kids to read them? Hosea 13:16 says"The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open." Isaiah 14:21 says"Prepare slaughter for his children Because of the iniquity of their fathers, Lest they rise up and possess the land, And fill the face of the world with cities" Isaiah 13:15–18 says,“Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives violated... they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children.” 

Answer: Your point is well taken; the Bible is full of so many words and phrases which when taken out of context can be troubling — and I find that your overarching question as to how these could be consistent with the 2 Timothy 3:16 is indeed appropriate. As such I will be happy to respond. So let’s start with the issue of their usefulness because you are right — the citations you have chosen are utterly useless… they are utterly useless without context, that is… but every word works that way, not just those in the Bible... I mean, you can’t even define a word without its context.

So, just because the Bible is the “inspired word of God” does not exempt it from obeying the properly basic use of language, and in those rules context is king. In fact, all words and phrases require a contextual analysis as the first step in understanding their meaning. What does this mean to your question? Bible snippets are the same as any other decontextualized words or phrases in that making a judgment on these fragments is not fair to either scholarship or communication. We should expect that every (non-absurd) piece of writing intends to communicate the author’s meaning to a target audience with reasonable efficiency.

These types of communications are said to be “in synergy,” and with a synergistic work such as the Bible, its parts work together to tell the whole story. This means that the reader has a responsibility to work with the story (and not fight against it) to discover the author’s meaning. Now… I realize that the Bible is a long book… and that studying it from beginning to end is quite a task… but that’s the job! Only once we learn its overarching themes, that is its “whole,” will we be in a position to criticize its parts. So, let’s look at Hosea 13:16 as the representative verse (because all your citations have the same issue).

God’s prophet Hosea was not calling down God’s wrath upon the people of Samaria; they had spent generations calling it down upon themselves. The Northern Kingdom (of which Samaria was the capital) found the end of God’s longsuffering for their nation. As such they would soon reap the natural reward of that disobedience at the hands of the Assyrians — a punishment not without warrant. What was Hosea’s role in this? Did he lead the Assyrian army? Did he cause Samaria’s destruction and captivity by saying these words? No. He was merely reporting the news… although, technically, he was pre-reporting the news… because it hadn’t happened yet.

We must consider the role of God’s omniscience here. God knows everything, of course — and everything includes the future. But “knowing” is different than “causing” — and the people of Samaria caused their own destruction by the actions of their own free will… and they did this in the presence of other options — like repentance! But they did not repent — and hence, the prophecy.

God knew what choices they would make ahead of time, and he had Hosea report the resultant destruction ahead of time — that’s all. Neither God nor Hosea caused this action; the Samarians caused it. In fact, God and Hosea were more like an Editor and a reporter who chronicle events using both headlines and details in the reporting… except they did this before any of the events happened.

The language of this prophecy might seem harsh to us today, but it was idiomatic in Hosea’s time…not because God was mean… but because this was how ancient armies behaved. They were often cruel in battle, and they focused on destroying the future generations of their most hated enemies — thus the references to children and pregnant women. Now, make no mistake… such barbaric events did occur! But since the language of prophecy was designed to make an impact, the prophets wrote large and loud with the language of destruction. This was not the regular voice of a narrative; it was prophecy.

If you studied Israel during the divided kingdom period, you would probably be cheering God on rather than criticizing Hosea. To say that the people of the Northern Kingdom were disobedient would be an understatement; they were purposefully evil… and they devolved into increasingly evil behavior under God’s watchful eye (and in spite of his many warnings).

So, what would you have a holy God do who is confronted with a generational… an I’ve-warned-you-about-this… and an in-your-face… evil? Forgive it? Overlook it? No way! Where God had previously used Israel to punish its evil neighbors, he would now use those evil neighbors to punish Israel. How’s that for fairness! But none of this was because he was a hater of women and children… or mean… or small… or unforgiving. God knew that they would never repent… he knew that their iniquity was full (more than full!)… and they simply deserved those punishments.

Neither the prophecy of this destruction nor its accomplishment makes for very happy reading. But it is a necessary story in the life of the people who refused to obey God under his written law, under his judges and prophets, under his warnings and under his watchful eye. But is this what the Bible is all about… punishment, war and destruction? Not at all.

Hosea 13:16 a snapshot in time… but out of a millennia-long story. Now, it is the snapshot that you have chosen to highlight (which is certainly your right), but why not focus on something else in Hosea like 11:1 where he prophesies Jesus’ flight to Egypt? Or how about Micah 5:2 where Christ’s birth in Bethlehem this foretold?  These are particularly germane passages for Advent and Christmas… and they are good snapshots, too… hopeful and bright — and that’s the piece you are missing. The Bible’s good news far outweighs its troubling passages… so why focus on the few?

This is where knowing the entire story of the Bible comes into play. From Genesis through Revelation God’s purpose plays out over the successes and failures of humankind. Scripture does not exist to make us happy; it exists to make us whole… and it does this by reporting honestly on God’s dealings with a petulant people throughout recorded history. 2 Timothy 3:16 is telling us to consider the whole picture: All Scripture is indeed useful… but not all Scripture is easy to swallow… and I believe this is your problem: you want all Scripture to taste good — even to children! But that’s not a reasonable request. First, life is mostly about adults, not children. Second, life is messy. Third, God’s dealing with our messes makes life messier still. Scripture teaches and it reports; it does not cause.

The Bible’s unique voice — that bothersome honesty — shows us that Scripture is indeed truth as opposed to being propaganda. If you were writing propaganda, you’d never include the whole raw truth like the Bible does, and then let people sort through it for themselves. But that’s exactly what Scripture does; it gives us the good the bad and the ugly… and God trusts us to make sense of it all as it relates to the whole… his whole story and his whole purpose for our lives. Let’s look at the data to gain some perspective.

The Bible has 807,361 words… and you’ve objected to about 130 of them specifically… but let’s crank it up to 1000 just to cover the “MANY others” you mentioned. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that you are right — that God was wrong to make those prophecies and to do all of the things you mentioned… and that those verses state that, on some level, God is a hater of women, children and the disenfranchised of all the earth. If that were true, what would be your plans for the Bible’s other 806, 231 words… that is, the other 99.9 % of the text… which contains many stories of God’s love and mercy?

Given those numbers, would the best course be to assume the worst of God until you studied it all out to see if he really knows what he is doing? I wouldn’t advise that. What if you died in the process… not quite seeing his “whole” plan… the plan that would save you and all who come to him from destruction worse than that which fell on the Samaria? I’d rather see you work with God a bit on those difficult-to-understand parts because there is much at stake in how you handle the data. At this point, you might be marching into hell over a 0.1% objection.

Even at this late juncture in my Christian life, I find many things in the Bible that I do not understand… (and I’m ashamed to admit that there are still some that I do not like)… but it would take a special kind of arrogance for me to project my limits onto the Scripture by declaring it less than useful because there is a portion of it that I can’t quite manage… and a very small portion at that.

The Bible student will continually run into passages that he cannot resolve emotionally or that have an apparent logical contradiction. But he should not throw the Scripture away because of this… or talk smack about it. Time wins this battle. Concepts that I used to understand as being in contradiction have since been resolved, and concepts that used to offend me emotionally no longer do. So the question becomes, what one does one do in the meantime? Not, what does one do with the Scripture? And in the meantime, one should hold the difficulties “in tension.”

Holding difficulties in tension does not mean that there is a problem with the Scripture (or with our brains); this is the very process of learning — and there can be no advancement otherwise. So, when you run into a Bible difficulty, give yourself a break… and give God a break, too… by working with him rather than against him (which is the same break you should give any author, by the way). It simply takes time to absorb and analyze material.

Let’s end by talking about the children. But to do so, let’s revisit that Editor/reporter's view of God and the Scriptures.

A newspaper that does its job can be troubling; it would of necessity be filled with the details of violent crimes like robbery, murder and rape. Now, neither the editor nor the reporter nor the paper itself would have caused these crimes — it would just be reporting them… and well it should! But the details of a rape story are so troubling that they might wound a child. So, should the editors keep harsh facts out of their papers because its subscribers have children? No… that would thwart the purpose of a newspaper, which is to inform. Therefore, it is the parents’ job (and not the editor’s job) to decide what their children see. The editor must tell the whole story (which is his job) and let the parents do the filtering (which is their job) — and the communicative handshake is complete. Scripture works just like that.

The Bible frequently reports on the successes and failures of people — but wholly — and as God sees fit. Whether or not you share the harsher portions with your children is on you — not on God. The Bible is a reflector of life, and as such it contains plenty of material that is not suitable for children. So it is incumbent upon the adult to do what Sunday Schools have been doing for centuries; they present age-appropriate Bible lessons and assign age-appropriate passages for memorization. But it is not reasonable to ask God to dumb-down the Scripture because there are children in the world.

As in all of life that relates to children, we must be the grown-ups… and the Bible claims no exemptions from the properly basic use of language and/or the prudent selection of audience just because it is God’s book. God thinks enough of us to tell us the whole story; it’s just that some parts of the “whole” are hard enough for us adults to swallow… let alone children.

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