What do you mean God speaks?

S3E14: Questioning the Bible (Wrestling with God today Pt.2)

April 07, 2023 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 14
What do you mean God speaks?
S3E14: Questioning the Bible (Wrestling with God today Pt.2)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Full title: "Questioning the Bible, and Risking Belief for Faith" 

Thank you for the loooong wait! 

We continue from the previous episode, which followed the trail of questions that begin when I thought to myself years ago, “Maybe there is no God.” In the previous episode, we followed how I wrestled with the questions about what we really mean by “God,” what it is to try to understand all of reality as a whole, and how this eventually led me to a book, written by those very people who came to relate to reality as a whole, as “Who,” that speaks with us.

This book, the Christian Bible, is the focus of my next set of questions, which this episode explores. It will recount how I wrestled with the questions of what it means for the Bible to be “the Word of God,” and how anything we can put into words and write on a book can meaningfully be God speaking, and the central role of the figure of Jesus in it all. We will follow how I tried to think through some of the questions posed against the Bible from science and history, and where I eventually arrived afterward. 

And what I found was: to take a journey of faith, you have to risk your beliefs.       

 2:02       How we’ve gotten our question of God backwards           
 8:25       How can a book ever be God “speaking?”             
 13:33     How life of a person is God speaking             
 19:43     Question about morality of the Bible             
 25:20     Question about science and the Bible             
 32:32     Question about history and the Bible             
 40:15     Bible is a map; follow at your own risk              


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[ pendulum ]

Sometimes, we have to step into the unknown. 

Sometimes, we have to journey on even though we can’t see very far ahead, and we don’t know what awaits us. Sometimes, we have to follow a path we’ve never travelled, even when, for all we know, it may lead nowhere. 

This all sounds dramatic, but we actually do it quite often—literally. You will be doing it the next time you travel to a location you’ve never been to, but, you turn on a GPS or look at a map. But, we don’t make a big deal out of it because we trust the map, or we trust the instructions that Google gives us. Why? Well, it’s because we’ve tried it before, and it works. Things are where the map said it would be; we got to where we wanted. 

Sometimes in life, we have to journey forward on a path we haven’t travelled, and we don’t know what’s ahead. There are things we can see; the landscape, the scenery, the path before us, ( or perhaps, to put in the broadest terms, reality all around us ). But, we can’t see from where we are what awaits us if we journey on. We may have a map, but, we don’t know whether the map is true, and we won’t know, unless we follow it and see. 

That’s what it’s like sometimes, to wrestle with God that the Christian Bible describes. So, we’ll explore how that is in this episode of …

[ music / ]

… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our 14th episode of the third season, “The Bible and ‘Risking your belief for your faith.’ How we wrestle with God today. Part 2.”

[ / music ]

In our previous episode, I recounted the kind of questions I wrestled with years ago, when I thought, “Maybe there is no God.” What does it mean to say that today, and what do we really mean by “God” when we do so? When I explored these questions, I found that for monotheistic religions like Christianity, God is not simply another deity like “Odin” or “Zeus,” except more powerful—a “Super-Zeus,” if you will. Which is to say: God is not some super-powerful entity in our reality; God is reality—all of reality. To be precise, Christians view all of reality as God speaking, and relate to reality as a whole as God that personally speaks with them. 

But, this meant that the question that many of us are asking today, when we question our belief in God, is not what we really should be asking. See, we think that our question is: whether we need this “Super-Zeus” entity to, say, answer the questions about the universe that our science can’t answer, or to know what is right from wrong, or to be successful in life. But, what Christianity—or, theistic religious traditions across the world— mean by “God” is not some entity we need only when we’re “stuck” about something: stuck in our scientific inquiry, or stuck in our morality, or stuck in our lives. What is meant by “God” is the very reality that faces us every moment, whether we’re “stuck” or not

But, I suppose the question about “God” does become more pressing for us whenever we’re stuck. What I mean is: it turns out that the question of whether we “need” God—at least, in the way we ask it today—is not really about God. It’s rather about us. Specifically, it’s about our limitations. Is there something in the universe, or some aspect to reality, which our science or reason can never explain? Is there something deeper to morality than what we’ve decided is right or wrong today? Are we truly capable of living our lives in a way we should? Or are we in some important way incomplete without something greater than ourselves that can empower and guide us? And such questions are by no means settled; very thoughtful people have wrestled with them, and argued over them, and likely will continue to do so. Now, I also think the answer to all of those questions is, yes—sort of. But, the thing is, by the time we arrive at any answer to such questions, we already would’ve reached a very particular point in our life-journey. 

Note the word, “already,” because I think most of us have this exactly backwards. I’d argue that any answer regarding our limitations is something we reach at the far side of our journey to God, rather than at the start. This is in stark contrast to how we seem to start our search for God today, by asking about our limitations first, to predetermine our so-called “need” for God. We have it backwards. Why? Let me put the question this way. What really are our limits? How far can we go in our scientific inquiry, or our moral endeavors, or our strivings in life, before we find that we can go no further? The answer is: we don’t know, and we won’t know until we take on a journey, so to speak, to find out. And it is through that journey that we learn what our limitations are—whether in say, science, or morality, or our personal lives. And the point that we reach at the end will likely differ for each person, and each time period. (After all, there are things we couldn’t know or do a hundred years ago that we can today.) Yet, again, what Christianity means by “God” is not merely what—or who—you encounter only at the end when you can go no further; rather, God is the very reality that you’ve engaged with throughout your entire journey. And what we learn regarding our limitations is not about whether there is “God” —any more than it is about whether there is “Reality”. What we learn is about how we should relate to reality when we do become “stuck”—when our reason can’t take us any further, or our moral compass seems broken, or our strength seems to have failed. 

And by then, it’s very likely that we already would have reached a very particular point in our journey; so, for those of us who believe in God, we’d have come to relate to all of reality that we’ve engaged with throughout this journey as a Person—as “Who” rather than a “What”—that has spoken with us. And in regard to our limitations, we’d have found that this “Who” that has engaged with us, reaches out to us from beyond where our reason, will, or strength can take us. Our question about the “need” for God is thus only a part of this entire journey—a part that we usually reach when we’re far into it.

As I followed the trail of my questions, I realized that it is this journey that the Christian Bible presents. The narratives that the Bible recounts are what people experienced and lived through to form a particular relationship with all of reality, as God that reaches out to them and speaks with them. But, what are we to think regarding these accounts that the Bible presents? That became my next question. Because if what is really meant by “God” is not some “Super-Zeus” entity that we need only when we’re “stuck” at some point, but rather, all of reality as a whole that we’re engaged with at every moment, which the Christian Bible recounts as speaking and engaging personally with people throughout their life- journey, then, thinking that “Maybe there is no God,” turns out to be, in the end, a question against what the Bible has recounted.  

But, remember our previous episode? When I thought to myself, “Maybe there is no God,” I also had to ask, “What do I really mean by ‘God’”? Well, I was confronted with the same sort of question: just what is the Bible? 

[ Pendulum ]

My first question about the Bible was how to understand the core Christian belief that the Bible is, quote, the “Word of God”—which is to say, God “speaks through” this book. But, what does that even mean? Or more importantly, at least for me, why? Why would God speak through a book? After all, isn’t all of reality, God speaking? Yes, even that statement is really drawn from the ideas presented in the Bible, but, the question still remained. And as I examined and reflected on everything I had read in the Bible, I came to a surprising conclusion, which we explored in the twelfth episode of the first season, titled, “In what ways the Bible is, and is not, the Word of God.” I realized that the purpose of the Bible is not to simply transmit what God is speaking, but rather, to teach us how to hear what God is speaking to us. What’s the difference? Well, you can listen to that episode again, but here’s a review. 

Now, when we understand all of reality as God speaking, we are immediately faced with a profound problem, which is: how can we know what God is personally speaking to us at any given time? After all, everything is God speaking: the shining sun, the pouring rain, draughts, floods, health, sickness, birth, death—the entire Cosmos, every law of Nature, all of history—everything. So, if everything is God speaking, just what, from it all, is God speaking to us, assuming that God does speak to us? So say, you fell and sprained your ankles: that’s part of “all of reality,” which is “God speaking.” But, is falling and spraining your ankles God personally telling you something? And if so, what is it? And say, when you fell, you found a wallet that someone had lost. Well, is that God telling you something? And if so, what is that? And why would you think that?

The Bible is in a sense a map, so that we don’t get lost in the sheer infinity of what God speaks. It is a book that guides us to recognize, which out of everything, at any time, is God speaking to us, and to hear what God seems to be saying. But, how does the Bible do this? Well, my answer to this was formed from what I had previously noticed as the features that seem to be particular to the Hebrew and the Christian Bible. 

First, I noticed that the Hebrew Bible followed an inter-generational journey of a people. Its accounts didn’t just present the life-story of some special individuals or a group that encountered God; it then followed through with the life-story of their children, and their children, for a span of more than a thousand years. So, what the previous generation experienced and lived through was continued in the next generation, and then the next. So, in our third season, we followed Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac and Rebecca, and then their children, Esau, Jacob, and so on. And there was a kind of “repetitiveness” to it all—similar experiences, similar missteps, similar unfolding of events, varying only in the specifics of their lives—as if they were confirming what the previous generation experienced and learned when God spoke with them. Then again, I suppose there’s no “as if” to it, because that’s the exact wording in the Bible; people in the Bible, living in different times, have testified that God “confirmed” what He spoke in the past to their ancestors by speaking and unfolding similar things in their time. And so, according to the experiences of these people, there is a particular way that God speaks with people personally, and this experience is consistent over multiple generations.

The second feature is more particular to the Christian understanding of the Bible, and it’s a rather complex idea. So, it might be helpful to explain it in comparison to another religion: Islam. (Again, you can listen to season one finale, episode twelve, for a more detailed explanation.) For Muslims, their holy book, the Quran, is the Word of God. They believe that what God spoke were recited word-for-word in Arabic by their prophet, Muhammed, and written down in the Quran. This is why if you translate what he recited in Arabic into another language, it is not the “true” Quran, because it is only a translation of what God actually spoke. For Christianity, however, proper translation of the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek, is also the Bible—not merely a translation of the “true” Bible. This is because for Christianity, it is the person of Jesus who is the Word of God, and the Bible testifies to that Word. What God speaks through the Bible is not simply its exact original text, but rather its message that points us to this person. That is to say, for Christianity, what God speaks is primarily a person, rather than a text or a recitation of words. [2] 

Now, this may seem a strange idea at first. But, I realized the significance of this insight when I wrestled with the idea that all of reality is God speaking. The problem was, our mind can never grasp all of reality and all of its truths, which would after all, be infinite. This is why there are some people who question whether there really is “truth” at all. What they usually mean is: what we believe to be true is never a whole truth; there’s always another side to it—something we didn’t know, some fact we overlooked, some perspective we dismissed. Our best scientific theories today about the universe can be proven false, or at least, turn out to be incomplete. What we believe is just, fair, and good in our day, may prove to be unjust and biased in our next generation. So, how can we believe that anything we’ve put into words can truly be what God speaksthe whole truth? How can any finite book represent the Infinite? How can anything we’ve said, or written, truly connect us to God speaking, which is nothing less than all of reality? 

As I was wrestling with that question, I found a fascinating answer in Christianity. [1] What connects us to all of reality—to God speaking—in every generation is a particular kind of person. It is not a fixed text or a statement; it is a person—someone moved by the “the Spirit of God” as the Bible words it. This was what we explored btw in the ninth and the tenth episode of the first season—the idea that there are truths, then there are truths that generate other truths; and such truths are about particular kind of persons. So, what leads us to every truth is not a theory, or a teaching, or even a method, because those are all incomplete and will eventually prove to be inadequate; rather, it is a particular kind of person—a person that speaks truthfully, considering everything thoroughly, wisely, and without distortion, a person who will teach us new truth, or new method, and guide us to reach the most profound truth that we can learn for our generation. And what leads us to justice and goodness in every generation is not some set of laws or rules, however well it was drafted, because it can become outdated, or become unjust to those it failed to properly recognize, or even be manipulated by those who “play the system”. Rather, it is a person—a person who loves people, judges justly yet with compassion, dealing with others without self-righteousness, or contempt for those who don’t somehow measure up; and it is that kind of person who will set forth new laws—new ways of living that will guide the actions of the next generation. 

Now, in our previous episode (as well as Season One), we noted how, for Christianity, everything we say of God is an analogy—an analogy to characterize all of reality as a whole with words that are available to us. Well, Christians believe that the best way to characterize our relationship with all of reality that speaks with us, is our relationship with a particular kind of person: someone who teaches us what is true, leads us with justice, and inspires us to love one another. That kind of person is the best analogy of God that speaks to us. And for Christians, it is Jesus Christ who was fully that kind of person. God speaking with us resembles Jesus—his way of relating to people around him, his way of loving them, and his way of speaking with them. 

Of course, other persons in other times and cultures—teachers, thinkers, leaders, or prophets—were to a great extent, that kind of persons for their generation too. But, for Christianity, Jesus was fully God speaking to us, because he was rejected and killed, yet raised to life. This idea, we will be exploring later ( much, much later by the way this is going—though hopefully quicker once this series gets published as books! ), but it was briefly introduced in episode thirteen of the first season, titled, “Why God still speaks”. The life of Jesus, and specifically, how he was rejected and crucified, presents a particular way humanity has related to God speaking to us: a dark and horrifying way, which has led to lies, injustice, and cruelty that is so prevalent in our history. And with the resurrection of Jesus, God still speaks, and will continue to speak to us, even in our worst moments, without condemnation or despair. 

But, let’s return to my original question: how is the Bible something that God speaks? It is a person, a particular kind of persons and their lives that connect us to God in each generation. It is such persons that reveal God that speaks with us, and sets forth laws and rules for their generation. So, the narratives in the Bible sketches out how different people in each generation became such persons, and in what ways they still fell short, or made mistakes, or even lost their way, and yet were loved and accompanied by God. Their lives describe how God personally speaks with people and how this transforms them, and for Christianity, the direction of their lives point to the person of Jesus. So, whatever voice that speaks to us today, which speaks to us like Jesus did in his time, is God speaking to us. And the way reality will unfold in our lives when we listen to that voice will resemble the way it unfolded for the lives of those who spoke with God in the Bible. That is what the Bible is about, and that is what Christianity means by saying that God speaks through a book. And that was the answer I reached regarding how I was to understand what the Bible really is. 

[ Pendulum ]

It is usually a good sign that there is something significant to your answer, if it also then leads you to unexpected breakthroughs in some other, related questions that you were struggling with. For me, these were about the seeming conflict between science and the Bible, and about the moral values in the Bible that we find to be problematic today.  

The second question is something many churches seem to wrestle with especially now. For example, the Bible seems to teach that women should not be leaders in churches. More recent, I suppose, are the issues about the LGBT community. Now, those of us growing up in churches often are urged to simply “follow” whatever is written in the Bible, because after all, that is what God has spoken to us. Yet, when I was wrestling with this question, I found that the problem we faced was much more complicated than whether or not to “accept” what God spoke in the Bible. 

First, I noticed that there are things in the Bible that no Christian today follows, such as say, the Old Testament laws on how a nation is to conduct warfare, which often led to eradicating or enslaving of an entire population. It’s in the Bible, so for Christianity, it is what God “spoke” to the people back then, yet no Christian would ever condone this practice today. But then, how are we to understand such practices? More to the point, I found that there were some key moral precepts that were changed or were overturned within the Bible itself. One example was the dietary laws: rules regarding what we can or cannot eat—spoiler alert: if you’ve eaten bacon or ham, or any seafood other than scaled fish, you’ve already broken that law. A more significant example was the requirement that every male individual who believe in God be circumcised. These were all commanded by God in the Old Testament, yet both were discontinued in the New Testament, at least for those who were not ethnically Jewish. Why? Why those laws? It seemed that there was a deeper reason behind how moral views seem to change within the Bible.

And there was; when I learned that the Bible is primarily about the lives of persons and their relationship to God, it opened up a new answer, which we explored in episode seven of this third season, “Why do moral views change in the Bible?”. Well, that and also the prior episode six, “Why would you think that God is good?” Laws, regulations, and precepts set out in the Bible, were borne from people, relating to God during their time, trying to live in a way that connected them to everything they understood as good, and just, and holy about reality—about God that spoke with them. But, real people live within the context of a particular culture and time period, with particular limitations both in their understanding and moral imagination. The most just society people are capable of envisioning three thousand years ago is not the most just society that we are capable of today. For example, back then, slaves formed the backbone of a society’s labor force, and people could not imagine a society without slaves and their masters, than we can imagine society today without, say, employees and their bosses. But the Old Testament set out how people are to live justly and compassionately in that context, by setting out laws on how masters should treat their slaves with fairness, and specifying when and how they ought to be freed. In the New Testament, even as he urged slaves to respect their masters and masters to be kind to their slaves, apostle Paul declared that they are “all one in Christ, whether slaves or free,” and in Christian countries in the West, this teaching became the basis for the eventual abolition of slavery.

So then, what the Bible teaches us is what kind of persons we need to be, or rather, what kind of persons God is forming in us, to bring forth a world that is the most loving, most just, most meaningful for our generation. And the specifics of that world—specific rules or laws—may be different from then and now; but people’s relationship with God, and the kind of persons they become, to build that world, remains the same. However, this does not in any way mean that we can just “pick and choose” which moral law in the Bible we will accept today. If anything, it cautions us against it; we cannot build that world nor know which laws back then still applies today, until we become the kind of persons that God is forming in us that the Bible describes.  

This, however, raised up another question, which was: if God indeed personally spoke with people in the Bible, why not just teach them better moral values, even if they find them incomprehensible for their time? The answer, which I recounted also in episode seven of this season is that we can only learn what we are ready to learn. Every high point we try to reach has a path—a series of steps—that leads to it. If we skip that step, we’ll just tumble back down. I mean we already fail enough at living in a way that we know we should; imagine being told to live in a way that we don’t even understand. 

And this trail of questions led me to another idea that is considered “basic” in Christian theology: accommodation. [3] And it is this idea that enabled me to revisit the question about science and the Bible, and more broadly, the question of whether “things that the Bible describes, quote, “really happened”.

[ Short Pendulum ]

The concept of accommodation, to put it simply, is this: when God personally speaks with us, God will communicate in a way that we can understand and respond to. It is, in an important sense, the “other side” of the Christian idea that everything we say of God is an analogy; but, that is when we are trying to characterize reality as a whole; what happens when reality—that is, God—is speaking to us? Then, what God speaks to us will be “accommodated” to the language, culture, and the level of knowledge of those who hear God. That is why, in Christianity, God speaking to us, is the person of Jesus, who lived in a particular time and culture, among a particular people, speaking their language at their level of understanding. And the Bible, a book through which God speaks to us, likewise accommodates to the level of understanding of the people who first read it. The metaphor I gave from the first episode of the second season, was that of a father telling his child that he’s “teaching the computer how to play a game,” when he, is in fact, coding a deep-learning algorithm for the game’s Artificial Intelligence. 

This became a key insight to rethink the question that had occupied me since my early teens: how to think about the first chapters of Genesis. The scientific account of how our universe, life, and humanity came to be seemed to be in conflict with the creation account in Genesis; and according to science, the global Flood described in Genesis did not happen. Back then, I was presented with two possible responses as a Christian. 

First was to reject science; or rather, to adopt the claim that the scientific community at large were ignoring hard scientific evidence, which proved that Genesis account was literally true. However, I could not quite take that path—but it was not because I knew that the scientific accounts were true. Here’s a thing about knowledge. I pointed out in episode two of the first season that just because you can state someone’s belief or a position, does not mean you actually understand them. But, there’s something further; just because you understand that position does not mean you know why it is supposed to be true. For example, I understand the general idea of evolution, or the Big Bang cosmology. I can explain it to others, and have. But, to know why they are true requires expertise—to know every relevant data and how they fit, and to be able to join and contribute to the current debate. That is more or less what a degree like a Ph.D trains you to do in a specific field. And I can do that in the field of say, philosophy of religion, or Christian theology. But, I do not have that degree of training—pun intended—for evolutionary biology or cosmology. For fields outside my expertise, I have to rely on the expertise of others; it’s really about trust. And this is how it is for everything in life; I rely on the expertise of medical doctors, car mechanics, journalists, lawyers, community workers, and so on, because I can’t know everything. So, if I reject the current scientific consensus out of hand, it wouldn’t be because I know it is false, it’d because I think that scientists simply can’t be trusted. But, if I don’t trust the work an entire group of people, why trust any others? Or, the people who tell me to disbelieve the scientists? 

Now, it doesn’t mean that I think whatever scientists say is absolutely true—that’s going the other extreme. Our best theories in science may be proven wrong tomorrow. It is logically possible that our universe is 6000 years old and was formed in 6 days, and our entire planet was physically engulfed in water some 4000 years ago or so, and we just got everything wrong. But, if we did, I’d like to let the scientists discover that, and until then, acknowledge that to our best knowledge today, reached through honest and truthful inquiry, the big bang cosmology or evolution do seem true. And if so, I needed to account for that when I read Genesis.

However, the second response I was presented with, didn’t persuade me either. This was to re-package the Genesis account so that it somehow “fit” with current science. Maybe the “Light” that God spoke forth in the beginning is the Big Bang. Maybe the Flood in Genesis was not global, but referred to a local flood that happened in the Black Sea Basin flooded 8000 years ago? But, as I said, scientific theories can change. What if what we discover in science tomorrow doesn’t fit with our “new” understanding? What then? A more cautious response was to point out that if it is not taken literally, Genesis account does not conflict with science. But, is that really what I wanted to learn by reading the Genesis account—that it does not conflict with science? That’s it?  

That is when this idea of accommodation in Christian theology opened up a new way of thinking about it. If God personally spoke with people in the Bible in ways that they can understand, to really know what the Bible is really saying, we need to think like how the people back then thought. That included how they imagined the cosmos to be; what each thing in the world really meant for them. Whether their beliefs were literally true according to our contemporary science was not the point—nor very helpful to us either, since our current science may be proven wrong tomorrow. The point was how they saw the world, so that we can understand exactly what sort of truth was being conveyed in their context. So, I began imagining what it’d be like to perceive the world as they did, and read the first chapters of Genesis in that frame. It turned out that this is how biblical scholars—those whose expertise is the study of the Bible—read Genesis too. And I found that Genesis was trying to convey something much more profound and grander in scope than what we’d view as a scientific description of our world. It was trying to describe what every possible world, in all of its aspects, consists of—and understanding that as God speaking. Likewise, Genesis was trying to describe not just how first homo sapiens came to exist, and what they did wrong, but how any kind of sentient being exists, what their relation to God—and thus, reality—is, and in what ways they–or rather we—can undermine that, and so, unravel our world. All of this is what we have explored in the twelve-episode-long season two of this series, starting from the episode titled, “The Creation account; why it’s true for the ancient Hebrews, us, and the E.T.s”  

And this led me to the final question: are the people described in the Bible real people? To put in other way, are the narratives about people in the Bible, historical?

[ Pendulum ]

I knew that historians and archaeologists have posed a number of challenges today regarding the historicity of many of the narratives in the Bible. And of course, they may be wrong; history is even more prone to uncertainty than science, especially when it goes back as far as the biblical times. But, again, I wanted to respect their work and expertise. And besides, the question of whether the narratives in the Bible are historical is actually quite complicated, and even the simplest answer differs depending on which part of the Bible we are talking about. For example, there is no historian who questions that there really was an individual named Paul, living in the first century, who wrote the letters in the New Testament Bible, and planted many of the first Christian churches. Likewise, almost all historians agree that there really was a man named Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago, teaching and preaching in the region of Galilee and Judea, and that he was executed by crucifixion, and sometime later, his followers were teaching others that he was raised to life, and would return one day. The few who disagree are taken about as seriously among scholars as, say, crackpot conspiracy theorists. And in the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament, we know from archaeological findings and records outside the Bible, that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah existed and that a dynasty of kings ruling Judah was very likely called the House of “David”. Historians also believe that the prophets who wrote the books in the Bible like Isaiah or Jeremiah—or at least key portions of them—lived back then.

But, what I read was that it gets murkier before the time of these kingdoms. We know, from records in Egypt, as well as archaeological digs, that a people called “Israel” existed. But, we don’t know where they came from; as far as we know, they’ve always been there. (I mean not always-always, but you know what I mean) We have no indisputable historical evidences of, say, Abraham and his family, or the events in Exodus. We’ll explore Exodus in the next season, but we have considered this issue of the historicity of Abraham and his family in this season, in the episode titled, “Is Abraham a historical figure? No… and Yes”

What I learned was that historians were not saying that there simply couldn’t have been people like Abraham and his family in the past. Rather, they were saying that they can’t find anything that corroborates the account of their lives as presented in the Bible— nothing that are beyond dispute, at least. The main problem was that their life-story presented in Genesis was adapted to the time and culture of the people who read this book, more than a thousand years after their time; it was like how movie about Robin Hood today would be adapted to the mindset and imagination of people today. But, that meant that the specifics of the story did not quite match the time and period that it was supposed to have happened. Again, none of this meant that there couldn’t have been people like Abraham and his children who encountered God that spoke with them and experienced the kind of things they did, that the Genesis account is based on. But, historians could retort that same can be said of, say, Romeo and Juliet; there could have been a couple like Romeo and Juliet sometime long ago, that our Shakespearean version is based on. But, we don’t then say Romeo and Juliet are historical figures.   

However, what I learned regarding the Bible—what it is, and how it is accommodated to those who first read it—opened up a different answer. What we were unconsciously insisting on was that the Bible would preserve for us a pristine record of the details of people’s lives in the past. And what’s wrong with that? Well, the purpose of the Bible is to convey to people how they are to live, and hear God speaking to them, and the Bible accommodates the content of its message to the way people understand the world and live their lives, so that it is meaningful for them. And the Bible accommodates to the people who read its accounts, not to the people it is writing about. Abraham did not read his life-story in Genesis; Jews who lived a thousand years later did. What that means is that the Bible may sometimes dispense with specific historical details in the story—details that historians today need to confirm the historical accuracy of the story—so that it can convey a message that would be more meaningful to the lives of those who are reading it. That was the implication of the core Christian understanding of how God speaks to people—that God accommodates to us.  

To put it in a different way, when we read the life-story people in the Bible, we tend to expect a kind of museum, with the details of their lives pristinely preserved. But, a life- story in the Bible is not a museum, but more like a lived-in house passed down for generations. Some parts of it may be from when it was built, but some parts that were worn out were reconstructed with new materials. Furniture so old that you don’t even know where it came from, sits right beside the sofa you bought just a few years ago. There are old stones and frames, but also indoor plumbing and running water, installed just a century ago, and electricity and wiring sometime later, and most recently, wi-fi. I mean, would you want to live in a house without these recent accommodations

These stories are not museums, but a house. Historians need them to be museums. People who read the Bible need a house; they need to truly feel at home with the kind of life lived out by the people in the Bible who spoke with God, and for that, the Bible needs to accommodate to the lives of these readers. The purpose of the life-stories recounted in the Bible is not to preserve the past in its records, but to draw upon the past in order to live now in a particular way. This is why, some biblical figures can have unclear historical status; they are real—or at least, are supposed to be—but they were re-imagined into the context of those who lived in a very different time, the first readers of the Bible, so that historians have difficulty identifying who they were in their own time. 

But, if that’s the case, how can we know whether their life-stories in the Bible really happened? Historians cannot tell us the answer; in fact, even when they do confirm the events described in the Bible, they cannot confirm what we truly need to know: whether God really did speak with these people; whether they really did find that all of reality they were engaged with, was a Who rather than a what; whether reality really unfolded for them in a way that God had promised. We know, historically, that Jesus lived and taught his disciples, and was executed on a cross; and we know historically that the disciples believed that Jesus rose to life after his crucifixion. But, this cannot tell us whether what they experienced was real—that Jesus, in fact, rose to life by the power of God, just as he promised them before he died. We cannot know because we never heard for ourselves what God spoke to them; we only know that that’s what they believed they heard. That is, unless we follow their path and find out for ourselves— unless we try to live the kind of life they lived today, and see what happens.

If the Bible is a map of how God speaks with us and forms in us a particular kind of persons, we can only find out whether the map is true, by journeying along the path that is drawn on the map. We don’t ask whether those who drew the map were historical figures—we assume they are—but, that doesn’t make the map the true. If the map gets us to where it says it will, then both those who drew the map and the content of the map is proven true. And in this third season, by following the life-story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and exploring what kind of experiences they went through, of what it exactly meant for them to hear God speak in their lives, and then witness how reality unfolded for them, we have been paging through the beginning pages of this map. 

[ Genesis music ]

And so, the long trail of my questions years ago, led me eventually to this question. If I live out my life, following this map—this book that describe the lives of persons that encountered God—will reality unfold for me in the way it did for them? And I couldn’t answer that question until I followed it myself and found out. And when I did, wrestling with my belief in God became wrestling with God Himself. That’s because it was no longer simply a series of questions about ideas or beliefs, of how to understand all of reality as a whole; it became a question of just what reality is unfolding in my life, and contending and striving with all of that, just like Jacob did. It was no longer simply a question about whether God speaks with people; it became whether God speaks with me. Genesis recounts that God spoke with Abraham and Abraham heard God promise him a child. Now, I had to find out what that would mean for my life—whether God speaks a promise with me, and whether He brings about in my life what was promised.

So, I wrestled with God. 

This is where the other side of my life-story that I did not recount in this episode came to the forefront—the one you saw a glimpse of in the extra episode earlier this season, “Examples from my personal experience.” When I saw how God spoke with my father, and then unfolded what He spoke, or when God speak to me to pray for healing, and I then the person was healed, or when God spoke and told me to recount my journey in a book or a podcast, I was following and seeing for myself if the map—the Bible—is true. 

And of course, the central landmark on this map is the person of Jesus. Does God that speaks to me, speak like Jesus, with unrelenting truthfulness, with enduring patience and profound grace, with undying love and genuine compassion, and with faithfulness that brings about what was promised even when I myself cannot believe it? And through it all, am I becoming the kind of person that resembles Jesus, resembles God speaking? Can I truly become that person? With all my faults and failures? After all, our world seems never short of Christians whose lives and actions seem farthest away from the person of Jesus Christ, for whose namesake they are identified. What if—what if—I am one of them? What if nothing about my life is God speaking with us?

And that’s the fear: what if, when I follow this map, it turns out not to be true? What if it leads nowhere? It’s one thing to never hear God personally speak to me; it is another thing entirely to believe that I heard God speak to me, follow what He spoke and promised, and then find nothing at the end. And that is why Jacob wrestled with God; God promised him that he will return to his homeland, and that he will be blessed and his children will inherit the land around him, yet it seemed that his brother Esau was coming to kill them all. It seemed God was breaking His promise. But, what God spoke does not come to be—then that voice was never God; God never spoke. 

So, we wrestle with God. For the journey of faith always puts our beliefs to risk. 

[ Music Ends ]

After all, we won’t have to risk finding out if the map is false, if we don’t follow it.

But, when can we say that the path we journeyed ended up nowhere? When can we say that God did not speak to us, after all—that God never spoke with us? Abraham and Sarah had to wait for decades for their promise for a child to be fulfilled, long, long after they were able to have children. So, how long? What does it take? Jesus, the very voice of God speaking to us, was rejected, humiliated, and then nailed on the cross, and eventually died and was buried in a tomb. Could we have said then that God did not speak—at least through Jesus? Yet, Christianity, and its message of what God speaks to us, really began only after he died, to rise again in his resurrection. 

[ ending music ]

That’s why our journey is still just beginning. What happens when our journey of faith seems to have led us nowhere? We will begin exploring that question as follow along the life-story of one of Jacob’s children, Joseph.

So, please join me next time for his life-story, which—I pray to God—will be notably shorter than the 40-something days this has taken.   

And please support this series as we steadily “crawl” along, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others, and by rating it on your apple podcast platform. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com. The link for that is in the episode description.


[1] I should note that part of this answer was drawn from a course I took in psychology, by Jordan Peterson, which is why I’ve discussed him in one of my bonus episodes. 

[2] It’s more complicated than that, as there are traditions in Christianity that does view only the “original Hebrew and Greek” Bible as properly, God speaking. This is closely tied with the inerrantist view of the Bible. But, even in those traditions, they believe that God speaks through even the translations, which leads to the idea that God speaking through the Bible is something deeper than simply the original text. 

[3] The concept was employed from before Christianity even emerged, from Jewish theology, and was adapted and developed by early Church thinkers like Origen and Augustine, then on to medieval theologians to the Protestant reformers, the most prominent being John Calvin.

How we’ve gotten our question of God backwards
How can a book ever be God “speaking?”
How life of a person is God speaking
Question about morality of the Bible
Question about science and the Bible
Question about history and the Bible
Bible is a map; follow at your own risk