My relative and fellow blogger Luke has also been blogging on inerrancy, coming from quite a different standpoint to me. Most recently he pointed to Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, in which some of the botanical details are not quite correct. This is a clear case where literal truth is beside the point - indeed, Jesus' "errors" of fact appear to be quite deliberate and are used to heighten his message.
I've been thinking about another Bible story this past week, in relation to the Chicago Statement's insistence on the absence of contradication in the Bible. This is one of my favourite Old Testament stories - the story of David's desire to build the temple.
The first part of this story is found in pretty much identical form in 2 Samuel 7, and in 1 Chronicles 17. Quoting from the Chronicles version, here is what happens.
After David was settled in his palace, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under a tent.”
Nathan replied to David, “Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you.”
But that night the word of God came to Nathan, saying:
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in. I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought Israel up out of Egypt to this day. I have moved from one tent site to another, from one dwelling place to another. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their leaders whom I commanded to shepherd my people, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ ....
“I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, ...
“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever....’”
This is a fascinating and beautifully constructed conversation between God and David, with Nathan as messenger. David proposes to build a house for the Lord. This seems like a pious thing to do and Nathan agrees it's a good idea. God disagrees. It's not particularly that he objects to the idea of a temple - he's happy for David's son to build one - but he rebukes David for his idea. Why? The answer seems to be that David is underestimating God.
God has lived in a tent since the Exodus and is not unhappy with this arrangement. He doesn't need anyone to build him a house. In fact, if there's any house building to be done, God will do it. First, he will "provide a place for (his) people Israel and will plant them so they will have a home of their own". Second, he will do something similar for David - "The Lord will build a house for you". In other words, he will establish David's dynasty, starting with the son mentioned here.
One of the key dangers with established religion is that God comes to be seen as belonging to the people, not the other way around. God will not be domesticated. David should remember who is God around here.
This is also a comforting message for the original exilic and/or post-exilic readership of these books. The Babylonians could destroy the temple, but they could not destroy God.
In Samuel, this is the end of the story. However, 1 Chronicles 22 has a second bite of the cherry. Here, David is shown appointing workmen and stockpiling materials for the temple God has told him not to build. Then he summons his son and heir Solomon. Here's what he says.
My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He is the one who will build a house for my Name.’
You will notice that the words of the Lord reported by David are very different to those quoted in Chapter 17. In the earlier chapter, the reason David is not to build God a house is because God doesn't need one. In Chapter 22 it's because David is a man of war.
If you were determined you could harmonise these accounts. You could say that Chapter 17 doesn't report the full words of God's message, and that in Chapter 22 David reports a bit that was left out earlier. You could say that David is lying, or making a mistake. None of these explanations is in the Bible, though. They are explanations forced by a prior view of inerrancy.
My understanding is that we are reading two different versions of the same story. You see this a lot in the Old Testament. The authors and editors didn't share our love for consistency. When they had two versions of the same story, rather than choosing between them or combining them they often just included both.
The second story has a different message to the first, but one that is just as pertinent. While wars and bloodshed may sometimes be necessary, God does not love them. The development of his temple is a work of peace, not of war.
The details of these two stories are contradictory. They can't both be true in a literal sense. Perhaps neither of them are. The messages they bring, while also different, are complementary. God is bigger than any temple, dynasty or nation, and rules over these things. God loves peace and rest far more than war and bloodshed. Each of these messages brings comfort and encouragement in a different way. We can learn from both of them. They should not be minimised or explained away in the name of a narrow view of inerrancy.