New thinking and the questioning of inherited beliefs is not an aberration from Christianity, nor a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian heritage itself. From the very beginning faith has evolved through questioning and argument.
At an early stage in the history of their faith Jewish people began to move away from the old idea that their God had chosen them for special favour irrespective of how they behaved. The stories of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families – show them getting up to all kinds of things we would consider reprehensible – deceit, trickery and theft – and prospering by them just because they were specially favoured by their God. In time this changed. People began to see that God was not an arbitrary, capricious despot, but a God who was consistent, fair, and just. God expected standards of behaviour from his people. They must not worship another god or make idols. They must not murder, commit adultery, steal, deceive, or plot against their neighbours.
In the book of Deuteronomy (ch 28), the conditions of God’s relationship with his people are set out at length. If the nation serves God faithfully and obeys the commandments, it will be blessed in every way. The people will live safely in their land, enjoy rich crops and abundant harvests, good health, long life, and many children. They will be defended from all their enemies and win all their battles. But if they turn away from God and act unjustly, they will face disaster on all sides.
The history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings are a long illustration of this principle. When there was a good king who reigned justly and encouraged people in the pure worship of God, there was peace and prosperity, but when there was a king who disobeyed the commandments, there was famine, disease, natural disasters, defeat in war, and all kinds of misfortune.
Sometimes the historians had difficulty in explaining certain parts of the history. King Josiah, who instituted a thorough reform of religious practice and was a good and faithful king, was killed in battle at the age of 39. The historian explains this by saying that the nation was still being punished for the terrible sins of his grandfather Manasseh (2 Kings 23:25-30). As an old scripture said, God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). But there was one prophet, Ezekiel, who disagreed with this. He was addressing the Jewish people when they had lost their freedom, their holy city, and their land to the Babylonians. They were in a depressed and defeatist mood, believing they were being punished because of the sins of their forefathers. Ezekiel offered them hope by asserting that God’s judgment does not go down through the generations – every individual is rewarded or punished according to their own behaviour (Ezek 18).
But some people realised that this too is not always true. Many of the Psalms and other writings drive home the message that good people are rewarded with long life, health, prosperity, and large families. The wicked may appear to prosper for a time, but they will eventually suffer for their sins. The Book of Job is a passionate argument against this. It presents the hypothetical situation of a man of impeccable piety and virtue who loses all his property, his family, and then his health. His friends (‘Job’s comforters’) preach to him the conventional message that suffering is a punishment for wrong-doing, and that his only hope is to confess his sins and pray for forgiveness. Job refuses to believe that he has deserved what he is suffering. He insists on arguing his case with God. In chapters of profound poetry, the whole question of the working out of God’s justice in human life is pondered. There is no ultimate answer, but the interesting thing is that in the end God commends Job for having the honesty and courage to argue with him, and rebukes Job’s friends for having the audacity to try to defend God’s justice with shallow arguments.
The belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people also undergoes some questioning and development within the Bible. It was probably at a time when Jewish leaders were becoming increasingly strict in maintaining the purity of the ‘holy people’ that the little Book of Ruth was written. One of ancient Israel’s close neighbours was the nation of Moab. There was a long history of feud between the two peoples, which was enshrined within the Scriptures in a commandment saying that no Moabite should be admitted to the congregation of the Lord even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3). Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who remained faithful to her Jewish mother-in-law and was rewarded by marriage to a prosperous Jewish farmer. The story ends with a little genealogy showing that the great King David was a great-grandson of that marriage!
Before that time, the prophet Amos had already questioned what it meant to be the chosen people. He asserts that being chosen does not mean God is always on their side – it means that God will judge them more strictly than others (Amos 3:2). In another place he suggests that they are no more special than any other nation anyway. They may boast about God giving them the land of Canaan, but did not the same God give other nations their lands (Amos 9:7)?
The Jews’ long experience of oppression and suffering generated a deep change in their perception of the meaning of being chosen. Even when they were at their best and most faithful to God, they suffered. A prophet at the time of the Babylonian exile came to see this as part of what it meant to be chosen. They were somehow fulfilling a purpose in the world by the very fact of their undeserved suffering (Isaiah 53). This became a central part of the way Christians saw the whole story of Jesus, the crucified Messiah who embodies the nature and destiny of the holy people. In the New Testament we find the firm belief that God is above all a loving God, and the daring insight that real love shows itself in weakness more than in coercive power: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25).
When sceptics point out that the Bible contradicts itself. they are really missing the point. The contradictions are part of the essential nature of the Bible, and of the whole history of Jewish and Christian faith. Faith in God is an ongoing journey of discovery, constantly dealing with the unexpected, interpreting experience, and discovering new truth. As God says to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be’.