Fact or Fiction? Can Bible stories really be believed?

 
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My brother and I grew up listening to the true, morally-inspired stories from the popular children’s book collection, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. Anxious to impress upon us the importance of good character, our parents read us the tale of Robert, whose greediness earned him a hollow pie; Maggie, whose curiosity brought about the destruction of all the pictures in her father’s camera; and Jimmy, whose disobedience led to an entire cabinet full of strawberry jam crashing on top of him. Each of these stories had a clearly defined moral: “Obey your parents, or something terrible will happen.” It’s no wonder our parents read us these stories: they hoped we would learn valuable life lessons—and maybe even keep the house from going up in flames!

These days, the Bedtime Stories might be considered a tad old-fashioned. In an age where moral ambiguity is in vogue, people tend to be suspicious of stories that promote a clear singular agenda. Maybe, some say, these stories aren’t representative of real life, and were merely written for the purpose of parental control.

The Bible too has faced its share of criticism. One objection I’ve heard repeatedly from my sceptical friends is that the Bible stories were made up to support some sort of self-serving moral or political agenda. Take the flood narrative in Genesis (chapters 6­-9), for example—perhaps a threat that we too might end up wet if we don’t play by a certain set of rules? How about the sea mysteriously parting for a crowd to walk across (Exodus 14), or walls spontaneously crashing down while people marched around (Joshua 6)? To some, these stories sound like myths as opposed to historical events. In an age of “fake news” and “post-truth politics”, it’s a question worth exploring: Can the stories in God’s Word be explained by selfish human motives?

At first glance, it might seem so. In 2019, Israel’s ambassador to the UN suggested that modern-day Israel’s land claims are supported by the Old Testament promises to the Jewish people. Respected Muslim commentator Shaykh Imran Hosein suggested the opposite, stating that the prophecies in question are conditional and therefore they were evidence Israel is not entitled to the land. Both groups use the Bible text to support their contradictory claims. Is this really what the Bible is all about?

As foolhardy as it may sound, I invite you to explore with me one of the most remarkable stories recorded in the Bible. It’s the account of the sun standing still, recorded in Joshua chapters 9 and 10. Whether a product of imagination, political agenda or historical report, what could be behind this incredible story?

First some background. According to the author, the Israelites were entering the promised land of Canaan (modern-day Palestine), a land given to them by their God on the condition that they displaced the residents. They had already conquered the cities of Jericho and Ai. To the believer, this might sound like a great time to sing “We are the Champions.” Meanwhile, the skeptic is likely to yawn at the monotonous regularity with which Israel defeats her enemies. So far, we have the perfect ingredients for a myth.

Enter the Gibeonites. These people lived in one of the “royal cities” nearby in the land of Canaan and had heard about Israel’s victories against the other royal cities of Jericho and Ai. Wanting to pre-empt the slaughter they figured might be coming their way, they came up with a clever plan. Dressed in rags and carrying mouldy bread and old wineskins, they approached the leaders of Israel and told them a lie: they had come on a long journey from a distant country and wanted to make a treaty. Despite their suspicions and against God’s instructions, Joshua, Israel’s leader, made the treaty. Three days later, the Gibeonite deception was discovered, but it was too late—the promise had been made.

Here’s where things get messy. Gibeon had just alienated themselves from everyone. Israel was mad because Gibeon had been dishonest. Gibeon’s neighbours were also mad because they’d broken their alliance. They decided to attack, so the Gibeonites came running to Joshua for help. “You promised!” they said in a twist of irony, having just broken their own. You’d think Israel would be justified in disregarding the treaty. But that’s not how the text reads. Instead, it seems God expected Israel to go to Gibeon’s aid.

Led by Joshua, Israel marched all night to get there in time, then fought on behalf of Gibeon. God “supplemented” Joshua’s human efforts with hailstones. Then Joshua asked God for the impossible: extra daylight to complete the battle properly. Joshua 10:13 records, “the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies”.

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Does it strike you as odd that one of the greatest supernatural claims in the entire Old Testament portrays God coming to the aid of some dishonest “heathens”? It wasn’t even God’s original plan! But when God’s people made an ill-advised treaty, God expected them to uphold it and came to their collective aid, even suspending the laws of nature for a time!

That alone is amazing, but the “moral of the story” doesn’t end here. Fast-forward 400 years or so, to Israel’s golden age, the time of King David. At this time God’s tabernacle itself was pitched in Gibeon, no doubt attended by the descendants of the original Gibeonites, according to the terms of the treaty (see Joshua 9:27). For three-and-a-half years, Israel endured a terrible drought, and King David, wanting to know the reason for this national disaster, asked God about it. The answer, stated so matter-of-factly in 2 Samuel 21:1, is nonetheless shocking: It’s because Israel had mistreated the Gibeonites! David’s predecessor, King Saul, had not honoured the centuries-old peace treaty Joshua had made with these outsiders, and had put some of them to death. Israel was thus experiencing God’s judgement—because God still insisted on protecting the Gibeonites.

Think about this for a minute. God miraculously protected a group of wicked, slated-for-destruction liars who had tricked His people into making an unwise promise, specifically against His instructions; then gave them the privilege of housing and helping with His sanctuary; and finally insisted that His people continue to keep their promise to them generations later, even punishing them for not doing so. What kind of God is this? And what kind of text is it that records this inconvenient story?

It’s the same kind of God who today invites you and me to come to Him—no matter how bad we are—to bring all our baggage, broken promises and ill-advised liaisons to allow Him to change us into the kind of people He knows we can be: people He can richly bless and invite into His service, people for whom He has a place in His kingdom.

And it’s the kind of text that smacks of authenticity. One that reports those details in all their human messiness—whether they make the author look brilliant or foolish, and whether God’s people are exalted or humbled.

Perhaps that’s why, in addition to the Bedtime Stories, my parents regularly read me stories from the Bible and encouraged me to read them for myself. And it’s why I find peace and hope today amidst the challenges and messiness of life on our planet. The God of the Gibeonites can still be relied on to keep His promises.

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Part-time pilot and part-time small engine mechanic, Nathan Tasker is a full-time follower of God. He and his family currently live in Maryborough, Queensland.