Smudged with humanity

Tales from the Unending Story

April 8, 2020 | Opinion | Volume 24 Issue 8
Joshua Penfold | Columnist
'The Bible we read has journeyed a long and messy road smudged with many human fingerprints.' (Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome/Pixabay)

It often feels like the God I encounter in Scripture is a completely different God than the one I profess to follow and worship.

In Jeremiah 45, God speaks relatively tenderly to the Israelites displaced after the exile, saying: “Do not fear . . . I will surely save you. . . . Jacob will again have peace . . . for I am with you. . . . I will discipline you but only with justice” (Jeremiah 46:27-28).

Yet two chapters previously, God is irate with exiles in Egypt for their willing defiance and idol worship, saying: “I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah. . . . They will all perish in Egypt; they will fall by the sword or die from famine. None of the remnant of Judah who have gone to live in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah” (Jeremiah 44:11-14).

I realize that, although these are side by side, they are two distinct sections. But it highlighted for me how varied God’s attitude can appear towards Israel or humanity in general.

If I’m honest with myself, when I read much of the Hebrew Scripture, the God that is written about seems to be more made in our fickle, vengeful, bloodthirsty image.

This is where I start to wrestle with my understanding of what the Bible is and how we got it. I’m leaning further and further away from the idea that the writers of Scripture simply scribed verbatim what God audibly dictated. 

Through my academic studies and personal reading, it has become quite clear that Scripture is far more complex than that. The Bible we read has journeyed a long and messy road smudged with many human fingerprints. 

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not attempting to remove God’s role in Scripture. I still hold this book to be holy, inspired and God-breathed, but perhaps not the way I once did. I believe that amid the myriad authors there remains one Author whose Spirit influenced, guided, spoke and bestowed wisdom to the human authors. 

If I can have this same intimate relationship with God through the Spirit, yet still be so limited in my knowledge and shaped by my culture, why would I believe that those involved in the creation of Scripture were immune to these things and exempt from their own humanity? If anything, it seems that God uses our particularities, embraces them, even prefers them, because they are part of the package of our humanity. Jesus himself is the best example of God embracing particularity.

And speaking of Jesus, as I wrestle with the less flattering parts of Scripture, the ones that paint God as less than an all-loving, all-merciful and righteous God, I turn to Jesus and let out a deep sigh of relief, maybe of assurance or unsettled peace. 

Not that Jesus is easily understood or simple to follow, but when I look to Jesus, I see God’s best attributes incarnated in him. And I think that’s the whole point. Jesus is the fulfilment, possibly even a kind of course correction for how to understand God and ourselves.

Jesus somehow gets his smudgy fingers all over every page of Scripture and on every page of my own life, blessing the humanity of them, challenging me to re-read them and wrestle with them all in light of him.

Joshua Penfold ( successively and sometimes successfully searches the scandalous, subversive and sacred Scriptures for spiritual sustenance.

Read more Tales from the Unending Story columns:
The gift of imagination 
Lessons from the wheel
Eating God's words

'The Bible we read has journeyed a long and messy road smudged with many human fingerprints.' (Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome/Pixabay)

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