Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How I Got Stumped, and What I Did About It

In our Wednesday night Bible Study tonight, we were moving through Exodus 9 in our customary way when I was presented with a question. How can the hail kill all the livestock (Ex 9:19) when the plague already did (9:6)? While I was elated that someone in the congregation has been studying the text closely enough to see the problem, I had to confess that I was stumped. I had not even noticed the tension between these two statements. While going through Exodus, I am using the NIV Study Bible rather than my usual NASB, primarily because the footnotes were written by my old professor Walter Kaiser, and I like the idea of having his insights handy in case a question arises in our informal study. So, as I usually do, I referred to the notes and found the explanation that only those who were in the field, as opposed to those in shelters, were afflicted by the plague in 9:6. Seems plausible, but did the text make this point clear? I wasn't sure. We brainstormed about a couple of other possibilities (they stole the Israelites livestock, they went out and traded for more livestock, etc.), but acknowledged that none of these were conclusive from the text. Ultimately we moved on from the question, me admitting that I was stumped, but also reminding us that as long as at least one possible explanation could be found for the difficulty, we need not assume that there was a contradiction present. 

Well, after the service ended, I came back into the office and started looking into the question about the livestock. I really don't like to get stumped! So, I turned to the commentaries and the Bible handbooks, the Study Bibles, and the apologetic works. I didn't find the question addressed at all in most of the works, and in the one where it was addressed, the answer seemed weak and indecisive. So, I pushed all those books off the desk and started reading the text. Again. Slowly. From the beginning of Chapter 9. 

Then and there I had a "Eureka!" moment. The answer to our question had been right there in the text all along, and I just hadn't paid close enough attention to catch it. In 9:2, the Lord says, "If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock IN THE FIELD." So, even though verse 6 does not make a distinction between those in the field and those not in the field (i.e., those in the shelter), that distinction was already made in verse 2. While I had dismissed the NIV Study Bible note as unconvincing, it was in fact spot-on. I had simply not slowed down in my reading of the text enough to notice it. 

Here's the lesson learned. Often times when we think we have stumbled upon a biblical difficulty, a conundrum, a contradiction, or some other perplexing issue, the answer may well be lurking there in the text if we will simply slow down, pay attention, and observe the details that are there. I know that. I've practiced that. I have taught that. But all of us are prone to forget it, to take shortcuts, to make assumptions, and to commit other errors of bad Bible study. So, every now and then it is good to be reminded that this God-inspired text is true and trustworthy, and most of all worthy of our very careful and attentive study. 

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