Things I’m Asked: Are the crazy Old Testament stories true?

Non-Christians sometimes point to the miraculous stories in the Old Testament and ask how any sensible person can believe them.

It is fair to say that Christians hold a diversity of views about some stories in the Old Testament – as to whether they are strict history, or whether they are stories designed to teach a theological truth. What is not in dispute is that the Bible contains many styles of writing. It contains: poetry (e.g. the Psalms); prayer; stories designed to teach “who” and “why” rather than “how” and “when” (e.g. Genesis 1-3); a love song (Song of Solomon); wisdom to live by (Proverbs); and prophecies about the future (e.g. The Book of Revelation). Theological integrity requires us to treat each piece of writing in the way the original author intended… and to understand it in its context.

As such, we would do well to note what one of the great fathers of the Christian church, St Augustine (354 – 430AD), wrote concerning the creation accounts in Genesis. He was critical of those who turned to the Scriptures for answers to cosmological questions the writers of the Bible never intended to teach.  John Calvin (1509 – 1564), one of the leaders of The Reformation, expressed a similar conviction. He said bluntly, “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”

But we need to be careful not to dismiss the creation accounts at the start of the Bible as fanciful rubbish. The Oxford mathematician and theologian, John Lennox, is one who takes seriously the chronological sequence of the creation events in Genesis 1-2, but notes that the word “day” can have a number of definitions. A day of creation can simply be a period of creative activity. Lennox believes that the initial act of creation (Genesis 1:1-2) is separated from the six days of creation that followed. The reason he gives for this is that the repeated phrases: ‘And God said,’ and ‘there was evening and there was morning,’ only begin in Genesis 1:3. By separating “the beginning” from the creative events of day 1, the universe is free to have an indeterminate age.

Lennox also explains the creation of the sun and moon after the days of creation (in Genesis 1:16) by adopting the idea that the Hebrew word for ‘create’ used in this verse (asah) can also mean “to appoint” or “to work in” something that is already there.

In truth, there is no other literature quite like the first three chapters of the Bible. The creation accounts have elements of poetry (repeated phrases), and numerology (repeated numbers and patterns). It is a carefully crafted piece of literature that teaches, with peerless prose that:

  • there is only one God
  • all that exists is created by God
  • God thinks his creation is ‘good’
  • God seeks to have a loving relationship with us
  • evil is rebellion against God, and God has a zero-tolerance for it
  • suffering is the result of humankind going down a path God never intended
  • God has not given up on us. He is rescuing his people, and his creation, back to himself.

These are truths that all Christians can unite on with joy.

What about Jonah and the whale? Surely that’s a fishy tale. Christians are divided over whether this is a story designed to teach a truth, or whether it is an historical account. Let me say at the outset that with God, anything is possible, and so it may well be history. Certainly, the story is placed in a historical context.

Let’s turn our attention to Moses parting the Red Sea. The translation of the “Red Sea” is uncertain and could equally mean “sea of reeds” which is suggestive of marshlands. A string of shallow lakes, some of which periodically dry out, exist along the exodus route, and the sea crossing could have occurred at one of them. The exodus account specifically mentions that a strong east wing held back the waters (Exodus 14:21). This phenomenon has been recorded. But mentioning these natural phenomena is not to deny God’s supernatural hand in rescuing his people. The exodus was a defining event for both Jews and Christians. As such, it is highly likely that God had a hand in it.

God saving people in the midst of water is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament (Isaiah 43:2; 1 Peter 3:20). This is why the apostle Paul links the Red Sea event to baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2). You may remember that the Hebrew people also crossed the Jordan on dry land at a time when it was in flood in order to enter the Promised Land (Joshua 3). Geologists have identified a site 32 kilometres upstream where earthquakes and land slippages periodically block the Jordan. Maybe God whistled up this natural event.

God is able to do as much or as little as he likes through natural phenomena. What is not in dispute is the fact that God has caused us to have the Bible, a collection of books that have stood as a guardian over faith for centuries. Despite the Bible being written over a 1,500 year period, its various parts fit together to build a consistent picture of God’s plan to restore humankind, and all of creation, to himself. Every significant principle taught in the New Testament is prefigured in the Old Testament in some way.

It is a remarkable story, and God is inviting you to make it yours.

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net.

Nick told his life story to Eternity in ‘Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith‘.