December 3, 2020

Ambiguity in Scripture

The Bible, through a Scientist’s Eyes, part four

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
by John Polkinghorne

• • •

To my ears, one of the most bizarre and troubling passages in the Hebrew Bible describes the “bitter water” ritual (Numbers 5:11-31). This ceremony was to be used when a man suspected his pregnant wife of adultery. He was to bring her to the priest and present an offering. The priest would then have her stand before the Tabernacle and make her drink a mixture of holy water and dust from the floor of the holy place. If she was guilty, the potion would cause a miscarriage and she would become infertile. If innocent, the bitter water would have no effect on her. Whether guilty or innocent, the man would bear no guilt for being jealous and accusing her.

The text is sufficiently ambiguous that it has prompted much discussion. Was this a “trial by ordeal,” designed to bring out a secret act of sin by appealing to God using a kind of divination? Is this a reflection of ancient magical practices? Why was the ritual only for women suspected of unfaithfulness and why didn’t wives have similar recourse when their husbands cheated on them? Why was the woman exposed to public humiliation before proof of guilt? As some have suggested, could this elaborate ritual have actually been a way of protecting women by forbidding husbands from acting alone in a jealous rage when suspecting unfaithfulness?

This is one of those difficult, enigmatic Scriptures that came to mind when I read the chapter “Ambiguity” in John Polkinghorne’s book, Testing Scripture.

The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the Bible in particular. An honest reading of Scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

Akedah, Chagall

To hear some people talk, the Bible is perfectly clear and well defined in its teachings. Black is black, and white is white. The way is plain and one can walk it by following transparent, easily perceived steps.

How then, John Polkinghorne asks, do we explain stories like God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? How do we square the fact that Abraham is commended as the great exemplar of our faith, when he is also shown to have so many flaws? And what of his family of scoundrels like Jacob? Likewise, David, the “man after God’s own heart,” who not only committed adultery and murder, but who apparently could also act like the most vengeful of near eastern kings. An example of this is when he revoked his pardon of Shimei, who had cursed him, on his deathbed and commanded his execution. Polkinghorne remarks, “It is the vengeful act of a spiteful old man.”

Ambiguous characters, all.

And how are we to understand some of the events and descriptions written in Scripture? What of angels? Are all the miracle stories to be taken at face value? Is there room for interpretation with regard to some of these portrayals? Are there symbolic, figurative, or typological aspects that we should consider when reading about some of the more unusual depictions?

The Bible is like life, John Polkinghorne affirms. It is multifaceted, complicated, and at times bewildering. It portrays characters and situations with all the rich complexity of life itself, exploring the shadows along with the light. Furthermore, it is written about people who lived long ago, in cultures quite different than our own. It uses language, metaphors, illustrations, and conventions that are foreign to us, that may reflect practices and perspectives we find troublesome or obscure.

Trying to understand and apply what Scripture says can be frustrating, especially if we have accepted the commonly advanced idea that the Bible is “life’s instruction book,” designed to give clear answers to life’s problems and questions. Open its pages, and you’ll find a much more interesting — if ambiguous — story than that.


  1. The biblicists are in the ‘Bible application’ game.

    They turn those pages into a ‘how-to’ book for Christian living. That is a formula for despair. Or, worse yet…pride.

    The Bible is both a product of God…and of human history….just as our Dear Lord Jesus was.

    Folks can tie themselves up in knots and go theough a myriad of gyrations trying to explain some of these ambiguities. Needlessly.

    • I believe that “Biblical Application” and “how-to” approaches are little more than non-biblical (but not necessarily anti-biblical) values that are “right” because they are popular.

  2. I just encountered one such ambiguous story when reading the other day (Exodus 4). God chooses Moses to speak to Pharoah. Moses finally gets on board with the plan. Moses packs up his wife and kids and starts off for Egypt. Along the way, God visits Moses…with the intention of KILLING him. Did I mention God had just sent Moses off to be the one to lead His people out of Egypt.

    Chaplain Mike, I enjoy these posts about Polkinghorne’s book. They raise some good questions and encourage reflection.

  3. Not to forget why the unborn baby has to die for the mother’s sin!

    • I’ve noticed that the OT doesn’t seem to place a very high value on unborn children. In ancient Jewish culture (as reflected in the Pentateuch–sp?), my understanding is that women and children were considered another form of property, albeit more valuable than other types of property. Another instance of this is in part of the law (Ex 21:22), where it talks about the punishment for someone who strikes a pregnant woman: if the woman miscarries, but is otherwise unharmed, the penalty is a fine for the loss of the child (as determined by the husband), but if the woman dies, the penalty for the perpetrator is death. Granted, the translation seems to change slightly from version to version as to whether it means a miscarriage or simply going into early labor and the child lives. I’m assuming, though, given the medical sophistication of that time period, that if a woman goes into early labor as the result of assault, the child is not likely to survive.

  4. Krista Tippett, on her Speaking of Faith show (now called On Being), had a great interview with Polkinghorne in 2006. They discussed religion and science (duh!) and how they interact. I find the whole discussion fascinating. But I think Polkinghorne goes too far when he says that quantum mechanics can explain how prayer works. He claims because of the uncertainty that surrounds the behavior of particles on the smallest of scales that there is room for God to intervene. Any time I hear science used as evidence for certain theological concepts, I start to get nervous. Here is the show if anyone is interested –

    That being said, in general I really do like what he has to say. I love the fact that he is a both a scientist and a theologian. I think he brings a much needed voice to these discussions. Perhaps his experiences in the world of science, seeing firsthand that we still know so little about this vast universe, brings a certain humility to his view of the Bible, far removed from the arrogance of those who claim a perfect understanding of it.

    • Obviously I’m not saying his is the only path to that kind of humility, just an interesting one.

      • Joseph (the original) says

        this brings up a very good point. we have been discussing the manner which sacred scripture was recorded thru the different authors at different times in history. so there are cultural nuances & worldview nuances & even scientific, or pre-scientific observations also…

        now, what would scripture look/read like if a person of Polkinghorne’s scientific intellect were inspired to write it?

        would Genesis 1-3 be different???

        what if God chose an earlier version of Galileo to record the beginnings. yeah…

        what an interesting consideration…

        • That is interesting to consider. I guess in the end though, I would hope the Creation story would retain its timeless poetry. I don’t think I’d want it to be written in the language of a science even though some scientists, like Sagan, can/could write beautifully.

  5. Something I’ve never really been able to understand that relates to the passage brought up today is Jesus’ teaching on the divorce law:

    He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matt 19:8

    The divorce law at Jesus’ time was very easy on guys, hard on women, if I remember correctly, and of course that’s also troubling to my modern mind. So what does it mean for such a divorce law to have been enacted for “hardness of heart”? Does that mean that the law was not totally from the heart of God, but is partially pragmatic based on the cultural condition? If so, which laws are a revelation of God’s character, and which are culturally influenced?

    • While I’m not completely convinced by all his broader arguments, David Instone-Brewer has some good insights suggesting that, within the cultural context of a 1st century Palestine where a sort of “any cause” divorce was legal, and that perhaps many Christians historically have missed this and emphasized rigorist aspects that may not necessarily have been Jesus’s main point. He goes on to say that Paul adopts similarly pragmatic viewpoints on divorce when he says that the abandoned ‘are not bound’.

      Food for thought, anyway.

    • Good question!

    • Joseph (the original) says

      since i am recently divorced & both myself & my ex-spouse Christians, i can understand personally the hardness of heart issue that is far grander than just the cultural/social issue…

      yes, i can understand the divorce ‘exception’ in the Mosaic Law as a means to keep the marriage union sacred & respected. without an official out, the lack of respect it was given could deteriorate to where it was but a shell of what God intended…

      and about it being one-sided: yes, i can see in the patriarchal society the Children of Israel lived, the emphasis would be on the woman’s perceived acceptablity & the man seemingly let off easier…

      i think though that divorce was never looked upon as being a good thing, so a man’s reputation still had to weather the stigma since it was the man that was the initiator. there was no neutral social perception back then. one’s character was a very visible & highly protected thing since all communal interaction & business transactions depended upon it. were there abuses of the law then as now? certainly. but if we look at Joseph in the New Testament, his was the honorable way divorce should have been pursued. i think that is what God had in mind when divorce was certainly warranted…

  6. Od Lo Re'ah says

    The commandments of Torah (the Torah of Moses) can be baffling without understanding why the Torah commandments were given in the first place. (I don’t mean the reasons Paul outlined in Romans.)

    I believe Exodus 19 best reveals why God gave the Torah commandments. It’s a little difficult to ferret out since some preconceived notions tend to find their way into many English translations. The Message, interestingly enough, does a pretty good job on the critical verses.

    Point is, understanding why the commandments were given yields clarity with respect to some of the more interesting laws such as the jealousy test mentioned in the blog.

    Keep in mind that Torah commandments were not given to gentile nations but to the nation of Israel, and that the early Jewish believers firmly ruled that gentiles are not subject to the Torah of Moses even when they receive Jesus as their Savior.

    Randy Windborne
    Od Lo Re’ah

    • Joseph (the original) says

      Keep in mind that Torah commandments were not given to gentile nations but to the nation of Israel, and that the early Jewish believers firmly ruled that gentiles are not subject to the Torah of Moses even when they receive Jesus as their Savior.

      wasn’t that clear for both Jewish & Gentile Christians until Acts 15 & The Council of Jerusalem making an official ruling which was followed up with a letter to the Gentile believers clarifying the issues…

      up until then there were those that insisted certain customs be followed. even the apostle Peter got caught up in the confusion & that after his vision from the Lord in Acts 10!

      even today there are uber-Messianic Christians insisting on a blend of Jewish customs/rituals, dietary restrictions, Sabbath only worship+feast day observance, etc. i have been in message forum exchanges where they expect all New Testament saints to follow their ways. funny thing is they think all other Christians are the paganized ones with syncretic elements & not the other way around…

      religion has a funny (as in not laughable) affect on people. they can be the most like Jesus on the one end of the spectrum & self-righteous, smug individuals thinking they alone have the most pristine truth & practice it without fault on the other. and they are more than happy to tell everyone else just how much in error they are…

      Lord, have mercy… 🙁

  7. Imagine what the Bible would have looked like if it were compiled and edited by someone who expected it to be an “answer book.” There would be no ambiguity, no contradictions. Either all that genocide would go unmentioned, or the prophetic voices speaking against it would be silenced. Anyone who was held up as a role model would be flawless; things like David and Bathsheba would be swept under the rug. Israel would always prosper when they served God and always be punished when they didn’t. And the “right” interpretation of any given passage would always be obvious, instead of each passage allowing several different interpretations.

    It would, of course, have no bearing on real life and leave us with such unrealistic expectations on how life works and how God works that we’d be driven to despair or atheism when our own experience didn’t measure up. And, it wouldn’t drive us to question God or to wrestle with God or even to engage our own intellects, because instead we’d just be told what to believe and either accept it or reject it. Most importantly, if we had a perfect book of answers we’d probably never venture out into the mystery and uncertainty of a relationship with the living Word, Jesus. Such a perfect book would be a perfect idol.

    It’s a good thing the Holy Spirit gave us the Bible we need, instead of the Bible we want.

    • +1

      It would, of course, have no bearing on real life and leave us with such unrealistic expectations on how life works and how God works that we’d be driven to despair or atheism when our own experience didn’t measure up. And, it wouldn’t drive us to question God or to wrestle with God or even to engage our own intellects, because instead we’d just be told what to believe and either accept it or reject it.

      Sometimes it seems like this is the way a lot of current Christian publishing is headed. So glad the Bible isn’t like that.

  8. A great quote from Luther on the authority of Scripture:

    “All upright sacred books agree on one thing, that they all collectively preach and promote Christ. Likewise, the true criterion for criticizing all books is to see whether they promote Christ or not, since all scripture manifests Christ. Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter and Paul should teach it. On the other hand, whatever preaches Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod should do it!”


  9. The Previous Dan says

    “it is written about people who lived long ago, in cultures quite different than our own.”

    I think that is the key. We take for granted that our modern set of values and sense of fairness is correct. I often wonder if we are right in that. Reading the Bible or even history in general, people of the past seemed more accepting of inequity and even death as something common that touched everyone. Life didn’t apear to be held as precious as it is today. Is that good or bad? Are we right or were they? Maybe somewhere in between? Do our modern values put too much emphasis on enjoying this life (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)? The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham looked for an eternal city.