Translations and the Tyranny of God

One of the constant challenges made by skeptics of the existence of God is what is sometimes called the tyranny of God. The charge is that God has done things that make it impossible to believe that He is a God of love and mercy, but rather suggest that the biblical stories are just made up myths contrived by brutal and primitive societies. Examples that you find used are passages like 2 Samuel 12:31 where David "puts people under saws, axes, and iron and passes them through brick kilns:." Perhaps the most frequently used case is 2 Kings 2:23-25 where Elisha has God send a bear to rip up a group of children who are kidding him because he is bald. Just reading these stories in your KJV Bible might make you think that there is some validity to the challenges being given, but there is a far more basic principle at work here that needs to be observed.

The problem in these cases and many others that could be mentioned is a problem with translations. The King James is a very poor translation of the original and, in fact, does not convey what the author intended to convey in the original writings. You can see this by looking at a modern translation or at The Word: The Bible in 26 Translations. Let us take the two examples above to see what we are trying to say.

What 2 Samuel 12:31 is saying is not that David cut up people with saws and irons and burned them in kilns, but rather that he forced them into doing these things as labor. The people involved cut wood, made bricks, picked rock, and the like. It was labor and may not have been easy, but it was not wanton destruction. The story in 2 Kings 2:23-25 is badly distorted by the KJV use of child. The actual Hebrew word in the passage refers to a young man in a militant form--sometimes in reference to an army. This was a gang of teenage thugs who were not just making fun of Elisha, but denigrating God and God's spokesman. The reference to baldness probably had to do with the fact that lepers shaved their heads, and as such were outcasts. These are all cases of direct challenges to God and to His representatives on earth.

To get at the question of whether we understand God's methods or purposes or nature, we must look at the original language and the context in which it is written. This kind of failure is not confined to those who would discredit God. It is also seen in the work of some fundamentalists and religionists. In the debates about evolution many creationists do not look at the words in Genesis and what they mean and how they were understood by the people of Moses' day. The fact that the sun, moon, and stars were created in verse 1 and then placed in a final position in verses 14-19 is lost if one does not look at the difference between the process of creating and making (bara verses asah in the original language). Failure to take the Hebrew words this literally has caused some to limit God's creative process to the week of Genesis, when clearly God's miraculous acts took place before the week started and have been continuous throughout time. These man-created conflicts cause the same kind of faith problems that we see with Elisha or David, and those who claim to take the Bible literally need to be sure that what they mean by the statement is to work at understanding what the author wanted to convey in the original language, not some English translation that is pregnant with the misconceptions of ancient translators. (Note: For a short guide to the Hebrew of Genesis, send a 37¢ stamped envelope to John Clayton, 1555 Echo Valley Dr., Niles MI 49120, or a detailed explanation is available in our booklet God's Revelation in His Rocks and in His Word for $2.50 ppd.)

--John N. Clayton

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