We regularly receive phone calls, emails, or questions in person from folks seeking answers to apparent biblical contradictions. Sometimes the questioner needs to be able to respond to a skeptic. This issue of seeming Bible contradictions is a favorite of skeptics trying to play “Gotcha” with a believer, using the contradiction accusation to undermine the revelation of God in His word and/or an attempt by a skeptic to simply feel a bit safer in his unbelief. But seeking out answers is often a Christian’s honest attempt to settle these questions in his or her own mind. Questions are not in themselves “wrong.” Even if a seeming conundrum should cause a believer to doubt, and the doubt drives them to search out the truth, that can often strengthen their faith in the end.
The issue has been batted back and forth for a very long time, and sound scholars have addressed the alleged contradictions in works like Gleason L Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, and many other fine works. But, even if a Christian should have a ready answer to what appears to be a conundrum, would a skeptic choose to believe once their objection is answered? Generally, no. Scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman hangs onto his claims about biblical contradictions even though they have been answered. We responded in “Interrupting Ehrman: Are There Biblical Contradictions?,” Rob Bowman published, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, and others have responded in full-length books and articles as well. For Ehrman and other skeptics, the issue isn’t doesn’t revolve around “can’t believe” but “won’t believe.” They have made a choice not to believe for other reasons.
Often unbelievers, false teachers, and those in cults are so invested in an idea or belief system that they are uncorrectable when the text they use is explained within its context and refutes their claim. But it is important to say that a non-hardened unbeliever, trying out his “skeptics wings,” may be induced by good answers to reconsider their view, though they probably will not show any inner struggle to you, preferring to cogitate it in private, so as not to lose “face.” We do not always know the effect our answers may have on people or how God may bring our efforts to fruition in time. After doing our best, the most important thing we can do is to fervently pray for the individual, regardless of how certain he may have come across to you.
Christians should realize that the simple answer to seeming contradictions in God’s Word is usually context, context, context! We recently had a question from a fairly new believer. He asked a question about a seeming contradiction in the book of Exodus. He said it isn’t something that would affect his faith but was puzzling. He had even heard Dennis Prager say it was an actual contradiction for which he did not have an answer. In the Exodus account of the fifth plague, we read:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die.”’” And the Lord set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.” And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died. And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:1-7)
The seeming contradiction shows up a few verses later in the seventh plague:
Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them. (Exodus 9:19)
It might seem bewildering at first blush. If God killed all of Egypt’s livestock in the fifth plague, how could God kill the Egyptian’s livestock, which had presumably already died in the fifth plague, again in the seventh plague? It is a good question. This also provides a teachable moment for us to review the importance of context in answering difficult questions.
First, we have the highest respect for Dennis Prager. He is Jewish and committed to Judaism. He is also a great defender of Christians and the need for Christianity in our world today. Prager is also a very good thinker, but even the best thinkers can miss an important detail or two due to its lack of observable presence. We just recently watched an interesting 4-part series on Netflix called “Inside Man.” One of the main characters is a man on death row for killing his wife. While he awaits execution, he solves serious crimes for some who come to him. A theme running through the series is his use of logic and deduction. In the last episode of the series, he notes that sometimes we miss important details because we do not notice they are not there. For example, we notice a plane landing, but we don’t notice a lack of a landing plane. The plane not landing is simply not on our radar, so to speak.😊 So we wouldn’t pose the question, “Where is the unseen plane that neither I nor anyone else expected to see landing?” Now, the unseen expected plane not landing can obviously be worrisome if we were waiting in the terminal for a scheduled plane that did not arrive, but the absence of a plane not expected is of no concern at all. In other words, we don’t look for the unexpected, and therefore we assume that only what is mentioned, expected, or plainly observable is all that, in fact, happened. The obviously available hard data is what we use to arrive at a conclusion.
For example, we know what is clearly revealed in the passage in Exodus 9:3-6. Regarding the fifth plague, God said He would spare the livestock belonging to the Hebrews but would destroy the Egyptian livestock that “are in the field.” Note God said nothing about the Egyptian livestock that Egyptians may have taken indoors. Interestingly, we know that many Egyptians – fearing God – did bring their livestock into the shelter on the occasion of the seventh plague:
Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his slaves and his livestock in the field. (Exodus 9:20-21)
What happened to the livestock and slaves that were taken into the houses? They survived. What happened to the slaves and livestock left in the field? They perished. The answer becomes apparent once we ask ourselves what aren’t we looking for and then look for it. Is it possible that when the fifth plague fell on the land, the Egyptians, who believed God would carry out His threat, moved their livestock and people into a place of safety away from the larger group that would die of the plague?
Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s response is:
First of all, the term “all” is often used in a general sense to mean “the vast majority.” Further, the plague was apparently limited to the cattle “in the field” (v. 3). The animals in stalls would not have been affected. Finally, the word “cattle” does not generally denote horses, donkeys, and camels which could have been part of the “livestock” that were spared.1This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.
Is there other info that may be missing? Certainly. There is the question of elapsed time between each plague and other possible remedies, which were not mentioned in the passage. It seems the plagues occurred over a period of months, perhaps up to seven months. So, there was very likely a period of time between the fifth and seventh plague. Another point to be made is that the Israelites were slaves and were therefore owned by Pharoah. As slaves, Pharoah could simply take any property they owned, and they would have no recourse. So, it is at least possible after the fifth plague wiped out the “livestock in the field,” any Egyptians that had protected their livestock by removing it from the field brought them back out and that Pharoah had appropriated the livestock from the Jews. In addition, the Egyptians could have easily purchased livestock from surrounding nations. In other words, if the plagues didn’t happen over three successive days, and there is no reason to believe they did, there would have been time (not mentioned in the passage) to begin rebuilding their livestock – which was subsequently destroyed in the seventh plague.
Someone may argue that this is a novel idea they have not come across before. But no, similar solutions have been offered by both Jewish and Christian thinkers. The element they had not included is the explanation about how looking for possible details not immediately mentioned can help answer the claim of contradiction.
Recently I (Don) spoke at a church, and during the fellowship meal after the service, someone asked about Ezekiel 18:20-21:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
The person asking the question came across this in their Bible reading and wondered – if we live or die based on how we live our lives, doesn’t that contradict salvation by faith?
A friend, Steve Ullman, who was at the table with us, picked up on the question and had a ready response. He pointed out that in the Old Testament, under the Mosaic Law, there were no sacrifices prescribed one could make for three very egregious sins: adultery, murder, and blasphemy.
Those who committed one of these three sins had no way, under the Law, of “clearing the slate” in this life, and the magnitude of the offense required a physical judgment and physical death because of their sin. Christians are spiritually saved for eternity by grace through faith, not works. Even the Hebrew Scriptures, from which Paul quoted in Romans 1:17, were taken from Habakkuk 2:4, “but the righteous shall live by his faith.” Yet Christians continue to die physically, do we not? We are never promised eternal life in our current physical bodies. Ezekiel 18:20-26 is not speaking of spiritual salvation but concerns the physical death of certain Israelites living in a theocracy. Israel was a God-ruled nation under the Mosaic Law, and the Law demanded physical death for particular offenses. Therefore, no matter how righteous one might otherwise be if they committed one of these three sins under the Mosaic Law, the punishment was physical death:
The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the LORD, he shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16)
The fate of false prophets falls in this category. As A.F. Muir points out in “The Punishment of False Prophets”:
The offense was one to which God himself is ever most sensitive. It affected his character and prerogatives and was therefore nothing else than blasphemy (cf. Matthew 12:32. “Even I know, and am a witness, saith the Lord,” ver. 23).
False prophets violated the first two of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3-6) and were to be stoned. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)
He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.
However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:12-14)
It is most often the case when we come across a seeming contradiction in Scripture that it can be resolved by reading the passage in its historical-grammatical context. It may sometimes take additional diligence to track down information about the culture at the time and how these passages would have been understood by them. The work is well worth the effort as we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ.Ω
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|↑1||This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.|
One of my favorite ‘contradictions’ is the one who killed Goliath? We would say David but recetly some heathen pointed to 2 Samuel 21:19 says some guy name Elhanan. It rarely comes up I don;t think its an erhman contradiction. Some Christians have tried to say it’s a mistraslation from Hebrew to English, but then I heard an interesting take on it of being very little is known about the Philistine language, Goliath may have been a title rather than a proper name. In Hebrew Goliath means outcast, so there there could have been more than one. Feel free to let me know your thoughts or corrections if need be please.
This is a great question and does need to bring in another passage to resolve it, 1 Chronicles 20:5. “In another battle with the Philistines, Elhanan, son of Jair killed Lahmi, the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod” Elhanan killed Lahmi. Lami was the brother of the one “who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod,” his name was Goliath. “Who killed Goliath, David or Elhanan?” at Got Questions explains what is essentially a copyists error in 2 Samuel 21:19.
Don and Joy, Great article on bible Contradictions. Thanks for standing up for biblical inerrancy and the truth of God’s word! Happy Holidays!
Many thanks for the emphasis on the clarity of reading in context.