O Come On Now! Really?
From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 17, Year 1 (Pentecost 14, 2015)
2 Chron. 7:5 ~ King Solomon offered as a sacrifice twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep.
The writer (or writers or editors or redactors or whomever) of the Second Book of Chronicles includes this hyperbolic detail in the account of King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in one of the many verses of Scripture that just make me cringe. It’s not the death of so many innocent animals that does so because, frankly, I don’t think it’s true. It’s the fact that I don’t think it’s true, that I just want to roll my eyes and say, “Oh come on now! Really?”
There is plenty of fiction in the Bible already. The whole creation myth (both of them, although the first one – which is probably the more “modern” of the two being more sophisticated – has more the sense of theological poetry than of mythology) are clearly not meant to be taken as factual despite the fact that there are plenty of literalist Bible readers who do take them as such. Esther and Ruth are probably fiction; Joshua, Job, and Jonah are certainly fiction. There’s nothing wrong with faction in Holy Scripture. Fiction, poetry, lover letters, metaphoric prophecy can all convey truth; the testimony of truth isn’t limited to facts. The writers of history, however, really don’t need to add exaggerated details which detract from their message.
I have several Palestinian Muslim friends who, because of details like this, argue that the entire claim of the Jewish people to what the Muslim’s call the Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), which the Jews call Har HaBáyit (“the Temple Mount”) is entirely invented. They believe it to be a fiction, in spite of the fact that there is archeological evidence for at least the Second Temple if not Solomon’s structure. This is the very problem with hyperbolic exaggeration in the histories; they make them unbelievable.
And there are plenty of such details. So what are we to do with them. The literalists claim, with some justification, that as soon as one starts claiming some part of the Scriptures are not factual it’s a “slippery slope” to concluding that the entire library of the Bible is untrue. The Bible, however, is not an either-or, black-and-white, take-it-or-leave-it thing! At one end of a spectrum of understanding is the literalist position that everything in it is factually accurate; at the other end is the conclusion that nothing in it is true. One encounters error at either extreme. Somewhere in the middle, recognizing the variety of genres the Bible incorporates and that its authors and editors had differing agendas at differing times, is the truth.
Determining that truth is an act of discernment, of critical, educated, willing-to-be-wrong, open-to-mystery, and accepting-of-ambiguity discernment. That’s a tough thing to do and that’s why being in that somewhere-in-the-middle place is often uncomfortable, often a place where one cringes and moans, “Oh come on now! Really?”