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"The Backstory Behind a Bible 'Contradiction'"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 10, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries

Listen (5-10mb)  Download (35-70mb)  Reflections

Text: Mark 2:13-28

Robert handed me a stack of papers—five pages neatly stapled together. Robert had diligently studied the Bible and carefully recorded all the contradictions he had found there. "The Bible's full of contradictions," he told me. "Here's a list." What was special about Robert's list was that it was so long: five pages, single spaced, Times New Roman, ten-point font.

There were the standard ones, like the Bible says that God never grows weary, but then it says that God rested on the seventh day after creation, the first Sabbath day. Or all of the different changes in the rules and the laws from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

And then there were some really obscure ones. I mean, down in the weeds. For example, how in Mark 2:26 it says that the high priest was Abiathar when David ate the bread. But in 1 Samuel 21 it says that Ahimelek was the priest. Here's what I've learned about these so-called Bible contradictions. There's usually a backstory, and if you're open to hearing it, you may encounter what the Bible is all about. Let's try this out with the so-called Abiathar/Ahimelek contradiction, the one that I just mentioned. And what makes this so interesting is that it comes straight from the mouth of Jesus. It's recorded in Mark 2, and Jesus is in an argument with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the self-appointed authorities on God and the Bible. And of all the reasons that they had to dislike Jesus, the thing that really set them off was how He came off as contradicting the Bible.

For example, the Pharisees knew that God had commanded that there be no work on the Sabbath day, but here Jesus was letting His disciples work on the Sabbath day. They were plucking heads of grain for a snack, as they were walking through the grain field. Now that is a little nitpicky on the Pharisee's part to consider that work. But from their perspective, it was a clear contradiction of God's law. Why are you letting them do this on the Sabbath? And Jesus, instead of directly answering them, references this obscure passage from the life of David. And what's really interesting is that apparently Jesus gets the name of the high priest wrong. He calls the guy Abiathar, but if you go and look it up in 1 Samuel 21, right there in black and white it's Ahimelek. And apparently the Pharisees don't even catch this because they don't call Him out on it. Perhaps they're so busy looking for other contradictions that they didn't even bother to check the backstory.

Okay. So listen to the context behind this so-called Abiathar/Ahimelek contradiction recorded in the Gospel of Mark 2. I'll start at verse 13.

Once again, Jesus went out beside the Sea of Galilee, and all the crowd began to come to Him, and He began to teach them. As He was going by, He saw Levi, the son of Alpheus, sitting at the toll booth, the place where he was collecting taxes. And He says to him, "Follow Me." And he got up and followed Him. And it happens that He is relaxing in his house, in Levi's house, and there are many tax collectors and sinners reclining at the table with Jesus and His disciples. There were many, and they were actually following Him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they started saying to His disciples, "He's eating with tax collectors and sinners." And Jesus, when He heard it says to them, "It is not those who are strong who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I did not come to call righteous people, but sinful ones."

Now John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and they say to Jesus, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests are not able to fast while the bridegroom is with them, are they? As long as the groom is with them, they cannot fast. But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast in that day." No one sews a patch of new unstrung cloth on an old outer garment. If he does, the patch shrinks, pulls away the new from the old so that a worst tear is made. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins so that the wine is lost along with the skins. But new wine is for new wineskins."

And it happened one Sabbath He was walking through the grain fields, and His disciples as they were making their way began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees say to him, "Look! Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" And Jesus says to them, "Have you never read what David did when there was a need, and he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God in the account of Abiathar, the high priest, and he ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for anyone to eat, except for the priests. And he gave it to those who were with him." And He continued saying to them, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. As a result, the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath." That's the Gospel of Mark 2.

So did Jesus get the name wrong? If you go and look up what David did in 1 Samuel 21, it doesn't look good for Jesus. The name is right there in black and white. It's Ahimelek, not Abiathar. But before we question Jesus' credibility, let's listen to the backstory. It's a story of David. David, if you remember, is the human king chosen by God, the true king to represent God to the people. The only problem is the old king isn't happy about this. The old king, Saul, doesn't want David to be king. He's jealous of David, he's threatened by David, and he's trying to kill David. So David is on the run, and he's got no food and no provisions, and he goes to hide out in the house of God. Now the house of God, at this point, isn't a brick and mortar building. It's a tent, a traveling tent. And 500 years or so before David was even born, God designed this tent and had Moses and the people build it. And this tent was filled with symbolism.

It wasn't just the blood and the guts of the animal sacrifices for the sin offerings and the guilt offerings. That's part of it, but there's a bit bigger picture. If you go back and read the descriptions of the "tent of meeting," as it's called in the book of Exodus and Leviticus, you get a picture of God welcoming His people into His presence, welcoming sinful people, forgiven people, people cleansed by the sacrificial blood, into His presence to sit with them and eat with them. And it's not just the sin offerings and the guilt offerings that the animal sacrifices are about. The animal sacrifices have a dual purpose as meals. And it's not just steak and pork chops on the menu. Well, not pork chops—steak and lamb chops on the menu. It's also bread. Lots of bread. Every week, the priest on duty would set out new bread, freshly baked bread. They called it the bread of the Presence: 12 loaves of bread, one for each tribe of Israel.

And the priest would set out the new bread, and then he would take the bread from last week home to his household, to his family, and they would eat the bread of the Presence. And this wasn't just a way for them to compensate the priest for his work; it was a meal filled with meaning. The priests and their families would eat their meals in God's presence. They would be representing the people before God. It would be as though God, the King Himself, were relaxing at the table with them. And this is all part of the backstory of the life of David, and it's part of the backstory of this argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. So Jesus references a time in David's life when he was on the run, when his life was threatened, and he's got no food, no provisions. He's hungry and he goes to find refuge in the house of God. And there he meets the priest, a man by the name of Ahimelek. And he asks the priest if he has any food for him and his friends. And Ahimelek says, "I don't have any common food, but I do have the holy bread." And then Ahimelek goes and gets the bread of the presence and gives it to David and his companions to eat. And if you're a Pharisee right now, you're thinking to yourself, "Why would he do that?" That's only for the priests to eat.

Now in Ahimelek's defense, he probably wouldn't have done this for just anybody coming off the street, but this isn't just anybody. This is David, the human king chosen by God, the true king to represent God to the people. It's David here. This isn't time to quibble about rules. "Go get the bread," says Ahimelek. "Let's have a feast."

But this brings us back to the so-called Abiathar/Ahimelek contradiction. Because the guy that Jesus mentions in Mark 2 is not Ahimelek, it's Abiathar. But Abiathar is not even in the chapter. Well who's Abiathar then? Well, you got to read the rest of the story. So you remember that David's on the run from mad King Saul. Saul wants to kill him. And he's hunting David; he's trailing David, and the trail leads Saul to Ahimelek, the priest. Saul questions Ahimelek—why he helped David, his rival? Ahimelek answers and Saul is not happy with Ahimelek's answer, and so he kills Ahimelek. He slaughters him. He kills all the priests. He kills their families. He kills everybody. Only one guy makes it away from Saul, one of Ahimelek's sons—the only priest left now, a man by the name of Abiathar, the one that Jesus mentions in Mark 2:26. So, is Jesus' reference to Abiathar a contradiction? I don't think so. By mentioning Abiathar, Jesus is referencing not just the scene, but the whole story. And He's doing it to draw a comparison between King David and Himself.

And here's the comparison: in David, God, the true King, chose a human king to represent God to the people. But the king goes through a time of suffering, a time when people contradicted his kingship. And the people who were loyal to their king suffered alongside their king. When Abiathar's whole family was killed, he ran to his king. He found sanctuary in his king. And the king said to him in 1 Samuel 22:23, "Stay with me. Don't be afraid. The one who seeks my life seeks your life. You'll be safe with me." In David, God, the true King, chose a human king. But in Jesus, God, the true King, became the human king. And He called people, "Follow Me." And in the time of His suffering, those who are loyal to their King will suffer the contradictions with their King. So Jesus promises us, "Stay with Me. You will be safe with Me."

See, when you open yourself up to hearing the backstory behind the apparent contradiction, you may encounter what the Bible is all about. It's not a book of rules. It's not a registry of names. It's a story about the God who loves His people and wants to stay with them. And in Jesus, God has come to stay. He's come to sit at the table and relax with them, to share a meal and to be with them—to be with you, to be with me. Now for God to stay with us, it's going to be a complicated plot because we are a contradictory lot, aren't we? I don't know about you, but I am full of contradictions, and my life is full of contradictions. And the list would be way longer than five pages. One moment I'm a Pharisee and I think I'm better than everybody else. And then the next moment I'm a sinner and I wish that I could be someone else. Over here, I'm amazed at how good I am. But over there, I am shocked at how petty and selfish and sick I am.

I just want to be loved, but I know that I'm not worthy of love. I am a walking contradiction, and I think you are, too—as were the people who rejected God's King, as were the people who crucified Jesus. We are full of contradictions. And yet God loves us anyhow, and He wants to stay with us. See, this is the backstory behind the Bible's apparent contradictions. God acts in a way that seems contradictory because He is a holy God who wants to stay with unholy people. And so He breaks down to build up. He threatens so that He can make a promise. He kills so that He can make alive. So Jesus became the chosen King who is rejected for us. Jesus is the King of kings who became the Servant and the Slave for us. God, who cannot die, became a human being to die and offer His life as this sacrifice for us. And then Jesus did the most contradictory thing of all: He took a shameful death, which is the end of us all, and He made a new beginning for all.

And now He is alive, and if you listen to His backstory, you can still hear Him say David's words to Abiathar, "Stay with Me. You'll be safe with Me."

That's the story behind the apparent contradictions of the Bible. God appears contradictory because He's loving us through our contradictions. And I admit it is a complicated story, a convoluted story, sometimes a confusing story, and I don't always understand it. But it's a realistic story. It's not only a story that's true, but it's a story that's true to life. And if the Bible were anything less, that would be the contradiction.

Would you pray with me? Father God, we thank You for welcoming us into Your presence. You need nothing. You lack nothing. You have everything, and it seems absurd that You would welcome us with all our contradictions into Your presence. And so we thank You. We praise You. We hide ourselves in You through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our King, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for January 10, 2021

Title: The Backstory Behind a Bible 'Contradiction'

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Michael Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting with Dr. Dale Meyer, a gentleman who served as the Lutheran Hour Speaker from 1989 to 2001 and continues to serve with Concordia Seminary as a professor there, helping pastors and teachers and deaconesses prepare for ministry. Thanks for joining us, Dale.

Dale Meyer: My pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

Michael Zeigler: A little bird told me that it was your birthday today, January 10th.

Dale Meyer: That's right. It's not a national holiday. It's just a little birthday for me.

Michael Zeigler: And which birthday is this for you, Dale?

Dale Meyer: I think it's 47, or is it the other way around? 74.

Michael Zeigler: Okay. One of the two. One of those will work. Good. We started this series of programs during which we plan to listen to the entire Gospel of Mark. This is a book that's near and dear to both of our hearts. We've worked together with a group that retold the Gospel of Mark live from memory. Several audiences heard it about 30 different occasions. We did it over the course of seven years. And when people ask me what that's like to retell the Gospel of Mark, what that experience is like, I say to them, "Well, think of it less like a play and more like listening to somebody tell a story around a campfire or something." How do you describe the experience for people, Dale?

Dale Meyer: For me, it's been one of the greatest bursts of spiritual energy I've ever gotten. And in memorizing Mark, and in then enacting it if properly understood, acting it out. Wow! All of a sudden those printed words on a Bible page really became alive. And I understand now Romans 10:17, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." And I understand better why the church grew exponentially at Pentecost because people took this word in.

Michael Zeigler: And that's what we're encouraging you to do in this series. Is to hear the whole thing, read the whole thing, and we were just getting started though. We've heard all of chapters 1 and 2 so far in the series. And next week, we're going to hear all of chapter 3.

Dale, you're going to be retelling this account for us next week, as you've gone back and learned and relearned Mark chapter 3 by heart. What's something that grabbed your attention or stood out to you this time?

Dale Meyer: I have to thank you, Michael, for the invitation to do this because I've memorized chapter 3, obviously, and "performed it" and enacted it in front of crowds, but writing a sermon on chapter 3 was really challenging. Okay, Dale, what unifies this chapter and the various stories in it? And I came down to this: that Jesus comes to us with God's loving kindness for our real lives. These are stories of real life—of illness, of anger, hatred—the kind of things that we have to deal with day in and day out. And as I thought about the chapter as a whole and how to write the sermon for next week's broadcast, that's what popped out at me. Jesus comes to us where we are. He doesn't ask us to miraculously ascend to Him. The Word comes down to where we're at with great loving kindness from God.

Michael Zeigler: What could we do to prepare our hearts to hear this message from God, inspired by the events and life of Jesus in Mark chapter 3?

Dale Meyer: It struck me some time ago, and I'll mention this next week. There's not much in life that lifts us up. We're always looking down, looking down at our phone, looking down at our bills, downcast, and now we've got COVID. What edifies? What lifts us up? What is mysterious and sublime in our daily lives? That's what I would suggest a listener think about. Where's the sublime in your life? Where's the mystery? And the answer is going to be the goodness of God that comes to us in Jesus.

Michael Zeigler: Dale, I like how you say that He comes to us in real life, in all those things that would cause us to look down and to be anxious and bothered by many things. But in the midst of that real life, the power of God, the love of God transforms us and shows up in mighty ways, even in these mundane situations. That's good.

Dale Meyer: Thank you, Dr. Ziegler and Lutheran Hour for having me. This is a great ministry, and may God prosper the Word as Lutheran Hour Ministries puts it out around the world.

Michael Zeigler: And may God bless you and prosper you on this, your 47th or whichever birthday it is!

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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