Human and Divine

As a younger Christian I used to be afraid of the Bible. What I mean by that, is that I was afraid that in reading through it I would discover something that challenged what I’d been taught to believe.

Of course, I eventually realized that, given the Bible is our authority for faith and practice as Christians, if something in it did challenge my beliefs, well then, they needed to be challenged!

Accepting that I should follow truth wherever it might go has taken me to some of the most peculiar places. The consequence is that some people find me sort of strange or alternatively, exasperating: I don’t fit easily into theological categories or many other boxes, for that matter.

For instance, there is a segment of Christianity that is terrified of discovering flaws in the Bible; this becomes obsessive to the point that there is almost a knee-jerk reaction against anything that might suggest the Bible is something other than a dictation from the very mouth of God. Most of Christianity recognizes instead that the Bible is the product of God reaching out to human beings, who then recorded their experiences and the words they heard. The Bible is not just Divine. It is also human, the product of human actions and human minds. But just as some people are troubled by the thought of Jesus being human (and thus having body odor, burping, flatulence, hunger, thirst, a need to relieve himself, sleepiness, joy, sorrow, and anger), so too many Christians seem troubled by the human aspect of the Bible’s creation.

But it is important to understand the human component and not flinch away from some obvious things that demonstrate just how human it is. Because of what are viewed as attacks on the veracity of Scripture, many Christian refuse the suggestion that some books may not be as old as tradition has suggested, and that the traditional authors might not actually be the real authors.

As an example, tradition tells us that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch or the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). To suggest otherwise must mean that you’re a godless liberal who hates God. However, it needs to be noticed that nowhere in those five books does it ever say who wrote them. Certainly we are told that Moses wrote things, that he received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai—but as to who put the actual five books together? The text is silent. I want to suggest—based on the text itself—that Mosaic authorship seems improbable.

I must choose: do I follow tradition, or do I follow what scripture actually says? Sometimes there’s no conflict with those two ideas. But sometimes there is. Sometimes what we’ve always believed needs to adjust to reality, to match what the Bible actually tells us.

So consider a few points:

Most people who know the Bible are aware of the problem with Deuteronomy 34, the last chapter of the last book of the Pentateuch. It describes Moses’ death and burial. Rather obviously, it would have been tough for Moses to put that together posthumously. Many Christians probably accept that at least that chapter was not written by Moses; they may assume it was written by Joshua (which is improbable too, but perhaps I’ll talk about that in a future posting, since it’s clear from the book of Joshua itself that Joshua was dead before the book of Joshua was written).

But there are more issues with Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch than just the last chapter of Deuteronomy, which perhaps one could argue was tacked on later. Take a look at a few other passages which are problematic if one wishes to assert Mosaic authorship:

Genesis 36:31:

These were the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned:…

The verse is then followed by a listing of Edomite kings. The problem is in the way verse 31 is worded. It is not likely something like that would have been written by Moses, years before the advent of Saul or David. The way it is worded indicates, I think quite clearly, that it had to have been written after a few Israelite kings had reigned.

Numbers 32:40-42:

So Moses gave Gilead to the Makirites, the descendants of Manasseh, and they settled there. Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, captured their settlements and called them Havvoth Jair. And Nobah captured Kenath and its surrounding settlements and called it Nobah after himself.

Of course, by itself, there’s nothing that would jump out at the average reader as being a problem for the book of Numbers having been composed by Moses. But what if we compare it with Deuteronomy 3:13-15?

The whole region of Argob in Bashan used to be known as a land of the Rephaites. Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maakathites; it was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.

Well, you say, that sounds very much like what we just saw in Numbers 32. And of course that’s correct. So again, how does this create problems for Moses being the author of these words?

Well, take a look now at Judges 10:3-5:

He was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair. When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon.

Yep. There’s the problem. Jair was one of the Judges in the book of Judges: he lived quite a number of years after Moses was dead and buried. So it would have been hard for Moses to have written about him.

I must mention something else. The book of Judges was written a lot later than most people probably think. Look at Judges 18:30; I’ll highlight the critical phrase:

There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

“…until the time of the captivity of the land.” See, that’s a reference to the Assyrian or Babylonian Captivity, when the people were taken away—you know, either during the time of Isaiah, or during the time of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Given the phrasing, I’d guess it was probably composed after they came back from one or the other captivity, so that pushes the book’s composition out to the time of Ezra.

Remember something important: many of the Old Testament books are anonymous. So why be bothered if Moses didn’t write Genesis-Deuteronomy, or if it came a lot later than we used to think according to tradition? Who wrote these books of the Bible and when they were written was apparently not something that was so critical to God. Does the authorship and time of composition determine the authority and inspiration of Scripture? Is the Pentateuch only “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) if Moses wrote it? Is the book of Judges no longer inspired because it was not written before the time of the prophet Samuel? I don’t think so.

If we do not know who wrote the Pentateuch (see above), is that devastating for our faith? Why? We also do not know who wrote the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, many of the Psalms, or the book of Hebrews–and most Christians know all that and do not feel their faith is being undermined.

Some books of the Bible have multiple authorship; they are a combination that were explicitly written by more than one person—for instance, quite obviously Psalms and Proverbs. So should we freak out if we discover that book of Zechariah has more than one author? Of course not. Because the book of Zechariah does have more than one author: see the post Solving a Theological Problem for an explanation.

The human side of the Bible—looking at the nuts and bolts of how the thing was put together by human beings serving God over hundreds of years—should no more bother us or disrupt our faith than the human side of Jesus. Pointing out that the Bible was written by human beings, that it was edited and copied by human beings, that the authors did their task as authors do their jobs today, and that it was revised by editors, as editors must, does not alter the fact that the Bible is also the inspired word of God, profitable for doctrine, reproof and instruction. It’s not an either or proposition, human or divine. It’s a both proposition. Both human and divine.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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